Horse Heaven

Jane Smiley
Knopf, 2000

UnknownJane Smiley might be God’s Department Manager in the Horse Racing Division. She is that far reaching in her view of a subject and that detailed in her observations of each player under the sun. The reader is forewarned this is a book of many characters by a two page Cast of Characters in the front.

It turns out that is a mere sampling of the population of people and horses the reader needs to keep straight in order to follow the story.

Though endearing in my opinion, Smiley’s description deliberately confuses a horse’s thinking with a human’s thinking, thus giving the persevering reader the human view and the horse view. Oh, and the dog Eileen’s view is there, too. It’s quite a cast and miraculously, just like you would expect of God’s manager, each man, woman, horse, and dog are noted with an impersonally compassionate summary.

I’m sure God’s job of judgement would be easier if Smiley could be by His side and give the facts on every player.

The oversized story covers the years of life and training of about a dozen horses before the Breeder’s Cup. They could be called well taken care of and that’s what you’d expect for a horse by the more-money-than-God-people pay for them. Still, the treatment doesn’t justify the title Horse Heaven. Horse Work perhaps? Or Indentured Horses?

They are dutifully, lovingly, or impersonally stroked, cuddled, cleaned, and given special diets. But the horses are shackled with a current business mentality that also results in millions of chickens that never see the light of day, and beef that grows by drug injections, not the leisurely grazing their ancestors enjoyed. Horse racing is a big stakes game and the money necessary to be involved in it has turned horses into a commodity that is traded, re-traded, traded again, injected with uppers, downers, pain killers, and maybe a vitamin or two.

Smiley is such a tease. It took me until page 214 of the 561 page book before I didn’t rise to the bait of expecting a story interaction of several key people, horses, and the dog Eileen.

That was the point of my final sigh that recognized the breadth of God’s universe with Smiley taking notes. I sat back to enjoy the interlacing stories of money, personalities, barn routines, buying and selling, and betting techniques.

From God’s rarified atmosphere, Smiley introduces various world orders that play and move people and horses. A few are “shit happens,” “claim what you want,” “death can come at any moment,” “don’t look at the [betting] form, look at the horse.” In the end everyone knows who their owner is. Horses know, trainers and jockeys know, and so do rich people.

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2 Responses to Horse Heaven

  1. Nice review. Sometimes my eyes rolls when I’m into a book with two pages of characters. It’s work keeping them all straight. It takes talent to succeed in engaging your reader. I checked my book shelf and don’t believe I’ve ever read Jane Smiley but the name rings a bell–I was so sure I had.
    You write a fabulous review.

  2. I’ve avoided reading too many books with too many people. I have to keep a sheet with names and a note about them. Smiley is a great writer. She won the Pulitzer for A Thousand Acres, and has a book with the intriguing title, The Secret Life of Dentists. Thanks for the note, Tess, in my small corner of the blog world.

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