Review: The Sport of Kings

Question: What do horse breeding and Southern whiteness have in common? Quite a lot, in fact, as The Sport of Kings demonstrates over the course of 500-plus pages.

This majestic, sprawling, daring, achingly beautiful book is ostensibly a literary epic about horse racing. It quickly becomes clear, however, that The Sport of Kings, the second novel by author C. E. Morgan, is just as concerned with horses as with race — as much with the sport as with its kings — and this pun provides the central metaphor around which the book’s themes and plot are organized.  Common to both horse breeding and Southern whiteness is a purity fetish, an obsession over genealogical descent coupled with a violently phobic aversion to contamination. At base, both are essentially about the same thing: consanguinity, the preservation of the thoroughbred bloodline.

The story follows the saga of the Forge family, a prominent Kentucky dynasty with a pedigree traceable to the first days of the Bluegrass State, as its scion Henry ruthlessly transforms the family’s corn plantation into a horse farm that might yield a Triple Crown champion. If Henry is the novel’s Ahab, then Hellsmouth is his dark horse of a white whale: a thoroughbred filly with the blood of Secretariat running hot in her veins. But Henry’s desire to breed perfection is not bounded to the realm of the equine; it encompasses everything in the natural world — especially Henrietta, his only child, whom he tries to forge (so to speak) in his own fanatical image. The story of the Forge dynasty dramatizes what happens when the logic of consanguinity is followed to its ultimate, sordid conclusion: the destruction of the self by desire of itself; the denigration of sameness by avoidance of difference; the negation of identity in pursuit of an impossible self-identical unity. This (as Henry and Henrietta, both amateur classicists, know quite well) is the root of all tragedy — the betrayal of a goal by its very quest.

Perhaps my favorite thing about this wild book, though, is the unbridled audacity of its intellectual and stylistic ambition. Morgan is unapologetic in her erudition, unafraid to confront readers with Big Questions concerning scientific racism, epistemology, genetics, the nature of pleasure, mass incarceration, Darwinism, and the possibility for a loving God to exist in a world which holds property in human chattel. The prose is frankly astonishing, in both its ingenuity and its sheer rhetorical excess; it is opulent, brazen, and avowedly maximalist. There is a near-psychedelic quality to much of Morgan’s descriptions, especially of the natural world, in a way that reminds me as much of Thoreau as of Morrison, Faulkner, or Melville (and, more recently, of Jeff VanderMeer, who I’ll say more about at some point in the future). As Dwight Garner observes in his review of the novel, “A sunrise is not merely a sunrise. Instead, ‘After a long night of sleep in the underbelly of the earth, the armored sun rose and charged the horizon, pressing against the dark with long arms until night fell back, wounded and floundering, to earth’s antipodal edge.’ There is a tab of LSD and shreds of the King James Bible in this morning tumbler of bourbon.”

At one magnificent moment, about halfway through the book, Morgan is busy describing the arrival of spring when she abruptly interrupts herself to confront the reader directly:

“Or is this all too purple, too florid? Is more too much—the world and the words? Do you prefer your tales lean, muscular, and dry, leached of excess and honed to a single, digestible point? Have I exceeded the bounds of the form, committed a literary sin? I say there’s no such thing […]. There aren’t too many words; there aren’t enough words; ten thousand books, all the world’s dictionaries and there would never be enough; we’re infants before the Ohio coursing its ancient way…” (353).

There are certainly readers who would swiftly reply: “Yes, yes— too much, too florid, you sinner.” But I am not among them. I find myself thinking of Morgan’s foreword to a reissue of Faulkner’s Light in August, in which she writes that Great American Novels “don’t lend themselves to facile exegesis. Instead, they often manifest as overabundant, and just as an over-rich meal can overwhelm or even sicken the stomach, so can these novels overwhelm even the most generous reader.” Since these comments were offered in defense of Great American Novels, I think they accurately apply to The Sport of Kings as well.