Just in time for the big kahuna of horse races, the Kentucky Derby, author Jane Smiley takes the lead with HORSE HEAVEN, her latest novel, set in the big-time world of horse breeding. An equal opportunity storyteller, she works in the interrelated lives of owners, trainers, assistant trainers, farm managers, jockeys, vets, bettors, and grooms. A club, which would not accept a lot of us as members, the horse world offers Smiley a wide open prairie of opportunity in which to exploit her well-tuned nose for both satire and pathos. HORSE HEAVEN is great fun.
The unscrupulous trainer Buddy Crawford; upper-crusty horse owners Alexander and Rosalind Maybrick; Elizabeth Zada, a horse psychic, who "streams" the thoughts of Mr. T, a horse in love with his caretaker, Joy Gorham; prize fillies Froney's Sis, Justa Bob, Epic Steam --- these are some of the stars of this show. When was the last time you read a book where the animals and the humans shared top billing? Most likely it's been a long while, perhaps dating back to A. A. Milne. With great wit, supreme compassion, and a little bit of tongue-in-cheek, we have thinking, feeling horses, dogs, and cats and thinking, feeling humans from all walks of life. It is rare that a community as closed-off to the general public as horse racing to be served up in such an all-encompassing fashion.
Like she did with MOO, her comic novel about the goings-on in a Midwestern academic community, Smiley is able to intercept numerous stories with insightful observations, tying the poor bettor into the life of the rich owner; the horse's world into the human's. The Zada story is my favorite: a horse psychic? What better fodder for both hooting laughter and gentle sorrow --- the fact that someone believes that they can get into a horse's mind, literally, is funny, but also...well, not pathetic, but her belief in her ability to do so is a striking characteristic of a desperate yet sincere individual. And the fact that Mr. T (the old horse has been saved from the glue factory by the emphatic letter of a young girl who loved him to his new owner who grows to care deeply for him) grows to love Joy is the sweetest crush of an animal on a human since the Velveteen Rabbit became real for love of its owner.
These are mythic ideas set in the present day, described so lovingly and with such tenderness that we find ourselves taking no sides, but rather caring about every single character with equal attention. That is a great and powerful way to tell a story, and Smiley, remarkably, maintains this balance all the way through, across some fifty characters and their interloping story lines. It is a writer's greatest feat, completely and utterly successful.
Smiley's no-nonsense style, the way she just waltzes right inside each character's head and heart with timely precision, and the utmost confidence in her right to be there, is completely winning --- each word travels through your mind like a cow's tongue on a salt lick. You just can't stop reading her words or tossing the ideas they create around your mind. HORSE HEAVEN is a huge success, a contemporary novel that employs every trick in the book, so to speak, and does so with such creative control and mastery that it leaves you breathless, from laughing, from crying, from feeling so much and so deeply. HORSE HEAVEN is a must-read --- I guarantee we will see this tome's title tossed about throughout the 2000 literary award season.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 22, 2011