C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings is engrossing, a tough-read, but falls short of being majestic. The book isn’t about raising horses, or breeding them, but about race and its role in shaping lives in an era in which racial integration wasn’t even heard of. The writing is heavy-set, with meandering sub-plots of the past linking to the present. Henry Forge converts his father’s farmlands into breeding playgrounds for the thoroughbreds, and gets into a conflict with his father; but it is not that straight – there’s incest (him and his daughter); Allmon (an African-American guy) impregnates Henrietta, Henry’s daughter, who dies while giving birth. It is telling to know what Henry feels about this: having to lose his daughter because of a man he despised.
There are many characters in this novel, and it is often hard to keep track of them. Morgan’s writing and her prose in depicting a life so removed from our urbanities are difficult, and more so when it ends in the chaos of 2006. The book has philosophical dialogues, lengthy stage plays, and sermons intermingling with the harsh realities of crack-selling youth, and incestuous fathers. It is through the oppression of the blacks that the Forges gained on wealth, but there is also Reuben Bedford Walker III, the beyond par jockey, the knowledgeable jockey rousing the envy of all white men around him. But what flows in the blood of the generations is not biological, but man-made: pride. They are too high-nosed to accept their shortcomings, their ignorance, and their fallacies.
The passages of the book, heavy on Kentucky style, are often difficult to grasp. The beauty however lies not in the horses, but the humans of the sport, always betraying, always conniving, always racial, always prejudiced, always in the endeavor to one-up the other. It is in hatred that this novel finds grandiosity and expends depth to the characters.
Not an easy read, but definitely a fine work.
Nikhil Sharma is a technology professional who has discovered a new found interest in literature, predominantly non-fiction history, over the last few years. He lives in Mumbai.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.