Title: The Sport of Kings
Author: C.E. Morgan
Rating: 3 / 5
Well this book was…interesting. I was drawn to it by the cover–I like the style of artwork–and also the publisher, Farrar Straus and Giroux. FSG usually publishes pretty high quality books, or at least books that I like. So that combined with the cover made me think this would probably be a good choice.
And it wasn’t a bad one. It’s a book that is somewhat epic in scope, in that it tries to be informed by many generations of the past. Set in Kentucky in the late part of last century and the early part of this one, there are three main characters whose stories intertwine. One of them is really into breeding thoroughbred racing horses, and the horse racing culture is used as a backdrop and extended metaphor. I was really into it at first, and there are definitely things to recommend it. I was gearing up to love it. I just felt like, part way through, maybe around the 60 or 70 percent mark, it lost its way or something. I don’t know if it quite knows what it was trying to be. In reviews written by people who loved it, one of the things often mentioned is that it is “sweeping” or “complex.” And I guess it is–it is ambitious. It tries to cover so much–family (family pride and family dysfunction, family myth and family…well, you’ll see if you read it), the United States’ racial legacy (slavery, servants, mass incarceration, opportunity, lack of understanding), ambition, class, choice, etc., etc., etc. I like thematically rich novels. But this one felt like it wasn’t quite doing any of them justice.
Another problem I had with it is that while, yes, it was thematically rich, the characters were just kind of…there. The book, at almost 600 pages, aimed to be deep with meaning but was not deep with characters, which is really such a shame, since I love character studies and think your characters are generally the best way to make your point–not lengthy passages on evolution or interludes on pregnancy, which are well-written, yes, and interesting, but ultimately came off as kind of lazy. Just a few too many digressions combined with not enough characterization.
[SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS, the next paragraph contains some pretty big spoilers]
The lack of character character development was true for all the characters, but was especially apparent with the only main female character, Henrietta, whose death is a catalyst for her racist, sexist, incestuous father to have an “awakening” or whatever. Um…great? Henrietta, I hardly knew ye. I feel like the author did a disservice with her storyline, and then suddenly her death was like this awesomesauce thing or something. She dies and now her horrible abusive father gets some redemption arc where he’s not as racist anymore. Just kinda icky. I can see how it would happen in real life, and I know people find meaning out of others’ deaths and that death and grief have the power to change our minds or make us see things in a new light. It’s just that these people don’t feel like real people, and when you use one of your cardboard characters to make a point like this, it’s just…I couldn’t done without it. With Allmon, the main black character, we get the best told story, but he still didn’t feel like someone with real personality or motivations; he felt wooden to me. We never really get inside the characters’ minds. Even when things are written from their perspective and in their mind, it’s fleeting and with a lack of real understanding or depth. I didn’t understand Henrietta–why didn’t she leave? How did she feel? How did she cope? She’s described as “cold” about five dozen times in the book, but what does that really mean? What is underneath that? What is her experience? I understand that not leaving because you feel trapped in an abusive situation is a common component of abuse, but we never are shown what that means to her. We never hear her thoughts on the matter. I just didn’t “get” her. I didn’t understand Henry either–yeah, he’s rich and racist, but like…? Is that all? It seemed like there should have been more there. I thought I understood Allmon, but in the end, it turns out I didn’t. Any actions that authors want their characters to take or not take is fine if I can see why, but I couldn’t really this time. The book is entirely about emotions in some ways, but paradoxically I couldn’t really get a read on any of the characters’ emotions most of the time. It was frustrating.
[SPOILERS continue in the next paragraph]
And then there’s the fact that Morgan, as a white woman, chose to write about the racial, class, and carceal suffering of a black man. I actually thought most if it was done well, though it is pretty heavy-handed. But then with that ending, it just gave a different feel to everything about Allmon’s storyline. It kind of felt like she was using the racial suffering of a group besides her own to make a “Great American Novel” but then forced that suffering onto the next (fictional) generation…for what purpose? To make a point about history? I found the scenario extremely unlikely. It was just one more thing in the book that kept it from feeling true or like the characters were real people.
[Okay no more spoilers]
The writing. Some of it is indeed beautiful. Some of it is quite florid. Some of my favorite writers have have been accused of purple prose, but really, this book contains some passages of the most aubergine hue I have ever read. Maybe it was bending so far on itself that it became literary again? I’m not sure, but I do know that, as beautiful and interesting as some passages were, and there were many I highlighted, there were just as many if not more that made me roll my eyes.
I just felt like this book was too ambitious. Instead of characters, it has themes, like the characters are just placeholders for ideas. Which can be interesting, but I didn’t feel like it was well done. It tried to be too many things and in the end it was kind of…unsatisfying. I love complex books with flawed characters, especially ones that deal with big topics. So if I had to point to one thing that turned me from excited and intrigued in this book to slightly disappointed, it would be the lack of inner life from all the characters in it. We see things happen to the characters but we don’t understand the characters’ inner world. I guess that is partly Morgan’s point–we’re buffeted about by history and belong to a particular moment that determines so much about us and our life course–what choices do we really have in the face of systems that were here long before us? Does our inner world matter or are our choices circumscribed? As someone who has studied up on sociology for the better part of a decade, I appreciate the point. It’s a question of history and biography, straight out of Mills’s sociological imagination. But while this book covered the “what” of people’s stories, by delving into “what happened to them,” often as the result of social forces, it didn’t really cover the “how” as well–it didn’t explore the meaning people gave to events or how they experienced things. And that lack of insight made the whole book seem like it was not hanging together so well. It gave so much power to history that it took away people’s agency, or at least didn’t let us see it, which I think was a pretty big flaw.
Still, it was interesting and thought-provoking and, I think, a more worthwhile read than many books out there. I would consider reading something else by Morgan, maybe even her first book, which I hear is kind of the opposite of this one in its scope. I think I might enjoy reading essays about this book more than I enjoyed the book itself.