Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Sport of Kings: A Novel by C. E. Morgan

The Sport of Kings is not about horseracing, it is about the gravity of pedigree, told within the context of several generations of Kentucky families (from the 1800’s to present day), and centered on a white landowner family and on the descendants of black slaves.

The book begins with Henry Forge Sr. homeschooling his son Henry Jr. on a mindset and culture that persist in our society like an incurable cancer – what Forge characterized as the importance of proper breeding and the superiority of the white man, as evidenced by his family’s heritage. Reading Henry Forge Sr.’s (Morgan’s) many oratories on these topics was simultaneously nauseating and intriguing.

The young Henry Forge becomes so consumed with the issue of lineage he eventually transitions the family corn farm to a horse farm to pursue an almost Frankensteining dedication to creating the perfect racehorse, and his own perfect human offspring.  He marries/mates a woman from the “right” family, and soon they produce a child, Henrietta. But time proves mom is a little too human, signaling to Henry her genes need to be bred out of their daughter to improve the bloodline. And yes, it is as sick as it sounds. Henrietta becomes the perfect pupil and victim of her father’s dogma and the privilege and entitlement that comes with the Forge brand. Although her mother’s humanity eventually surfaces in Henrietta, consistent with the theme for this book, author Morgan (pictured) doesn’t let any good come of it.  

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The book’s counter balance consists of several black characters that thrash about their existence, torn between their slave identity and the identity offered by a sometimes embarrassed and repentant society. One of the main characters, Allmon Shaughnessy, a mulatto who becomes a groom at the Forge horse farm, betrays Henrietta and sells his soul to her father to gain a mirage of status. A former maid who witnessed the underbelly of the Forge family comes back promising to destroy the family name in a tell-all book. A successful racing jock serves as the “Greek chorus”  mercilessly (and marvelously) mocking the abomination and absurdity of the white/black conflict. And although Sport of Kings is a commentary on the bottomless issue of race in American, I think it could be about any oppressed and undervalued segment of our society.

Morgan has indeed written a “gothic southern novel” that will probably be lauded and debated forever (you’ll see this book on plenty “best of 2016” lists), but there were a number of things that got in the way of my ultimate enjoyment – other than the fact that there’s not a single bright spot in the entire book other than a magnificent racehorse named Hell’s Mouth.

First, several of the characters seemed very similar-sounding mouthpieces for the author’s perspective and commentary, and I found that somewhat distracting and unauthentic. Second, the women in the book were irrationally inconsequential – they had, or could have had a critical impact on the story’s tack and velocity, but then Morgan either killed them off or minimalized their continued involvement, stilting the storyline.

Read it?  Yes, absolutely.

Enjoy it?  I can pretty much assure you that you will not.

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