“Evolution is a ladder, and our aim is to climb it as quickly as possible,” says Henry Forge, one of the three principal characters of C.E. Morgan’s second novel, The Sport of Kings. Whether or not evolution is indeed “a ladder,” his selective views on the subject of natural selection form the crux of Morgan’s ambitious new book, a dynastic saga on horse-breeding and the conservative beliefs it can breed. It depicts father-daughter team Henry and Henrietta Forge as they strive to raise the perfect racehorse, employing the recently paroled Allmon Shaughnessy as a groom on their Kentucky farm. The trio’s travails are a microcosm of a changing America, of an America that’s becoming increasingly intermixed but is still suffering the ugly fallout from decades of prejudice and subjugation. Below the surface, it’s also an allegory for two competing visions of evolution itself, and of how society should develop into the future.
The first vision is embodied by Henry Forge, a man whose childhood and adolescence in 1950s Kentucky is charted in the novel’s first section. He spends his early years being homeschooled in the classics by his trenchantly racist father, John, who inculcates him with such bromides as “Real knowledge begins with knowing your place in the world.” Luckily for Henry, he escapes his father’s shadow just enough to begin dreaming of turning the family farm into a stable. But when he finally does realize his dreams in the book’s second section, he applies his father’s ‘traditionalist’ biases to the practice of breeding racehorses. He declares pedagogically to his daughter, Henrietta, “Purity builds the empire,” believing that the best way to generate the next Secretariat is to inbreed.
Even though this fixation on inbreeding and ‘purity’ is still de rigueur in today’s world of horse racing, it feeds unhealthily into Henry’s worldview and behavior. In one especially objectionable speech to Henrietta, he pretends to explain, “Blacks are inferior and it’s always been that way. It’s a genetic reality.” Given these hateful opinions, it’s no wonder that he spends much of his time outside of the stable being a thoroughly antisocial misanthrope, and that he remains thoroughly dismissive of hireling Allmon, an Irish-African-American ex-convict: “Hate you? I don’t even remember your name.”
There is a shocking undercurrent of incest that runs throughout the novel, but Morgan treats it gently and deftly. In one scene, a vet attending the birth of a new foal notices Henry touch “the small of his daughter’s back—that too-intimate touch again.” As subtle as this hint is, it becomes jarringly prophetic when, later in the book, Henrietta falls pregnant and Henry wonders, “What if the child was, in fact, not his?” Such internal monologues may make for some uncomfortable reading, but in showing how an obsessive concern for ‘purity’ can lead to incest, the novel raises a powerfully unsettling metaphor for how ways of living that turn inward and reject diversity are fundamentally unhealthy, not just for the people rejected but for the people who do the rejecting as well.
If this unsavory undertow threatens to transform The Sport of Kings into a uniformly troubling read, Henrietta’s stance on evolution tempers her father’s insularity with something more open and accepting. Unlike her father, she believes that natural selection confers benefits on life precisely when it confers diversification: “Oh, come on, the Thoroughbred was a late hybridization, a mongrelization. That’s why they’re so strong.” Much of the enjoyment of reading the novel comes from seeing how these beliefs inform Henrietta’s personality and lifestyle. She regards people, not as a means to some fantastical end involving ‘perfection,’ but as ends in their own right. She’s all-embracing enough to hire Allmon as a groom.
Allmon’s sections of the novel are perhaps the most affecting. They represent the unhappy ramifications of a ‘purity’-obsessed, racist worldview. Brought up by a single African-American mother in the “reflected pollution” of Cincinnati, Allmon’s fatherless condition and unmitigated poverty leads to a life of petty crime, which leads to prison. While in prison he makes the cut for a respected six-month “Groom Program,” having “shown potential and enthusiasm for this line of work.” This line of work is, of course, the grooming of racehorses, and even though he manages to land a job at Forge Farm soon after being released from jail, things only get more complicated for him upon intermingling his fate with that of the intolerant Henry and the open-minded Henrietta.
It would only spoil The Sport of Kings to reveal how exactly their story unfolds, but the story is already spoiled somewhat by an issue concerning the extravagant use of literary devices. While the book is for the most part eloquently written, the overuse of similes involving like and as is so pronounced that it detracts from Morgan’s prose, almost to the point where her normally fine language is reframed in the light of such unfortunate phrases as “He breathed like a gladiator” and “He rushed the stairs like a bull.” Sometimes there are two or three of these in a single paragraph, which makes the opening chapter of the book something of a labor. Worse still, it comes across as heavy-handed and a little insulting to the novel’s readers, implying that they might not be capable of interpreting the narrative for themselves.
It’s simultaneously funny and sad that Morgan seems to be aware of this, even going so far as to apologize for it when she writes, “In the morning, Hellsmouth seemed healthy as—God, sorry—a horse.” While it’s nice to receive an apology, and while these descriptions may be intended to complement the trite thinking of Henry Forge himself, regretting a crime while continuing to perpetrate it doesn’t absolve you of its guilt. It doesn’t make the similes any less of a chore to read, any less of a distraction from what is otherwise a vivid evocation of American and Kentuckian life.
And that’s a shame, because despite the failure of her editors to rein in an excessive tendency to lines as “summer came like an Egyptian plague,” Morgan has produced a novel that’s still worth reading. It may suffer from a slow opening section, and it may succumb to certain literary indulgences, but it gains momentum as it develops, especially with the introduction of Allmon. As the novel reaches its heartrending conclusion, you begin to forgive it for its problems and feel for its characters, to almost agree with Morgan when she writes, “did you notice how, like something breaking apart upon reentry, she grew even brighter as she came apart?” Here she is writing of the Forge’s prized horse, Hellsmouth, but she’s also describing The Sport of Kings.
Simon Chandler is a writer and journalist. He has commented on politics, technology and culture for the likes of Wired, The Daily Dot, TechCrunch, Truthout and AlterNet. He also writes about music for Tiny Mix Tapes, PopMatters and The 405, and about literature for The Kenyon Review and Electric Literature.