‘Modern Life is Rubbish’ opined Blur, the British indie rock band, back in 1993. Well, it’s a point of view… Certainly the pace of things – with days, weeks, even years whizzing past – somehow it does feel unprecedented. When one is cognisant of sand slipping through one’s hands, time becomes precious. Whatever we consume or experience, we demand near-immediate return – else we move on. And this lack of patience, the compacted timeframes within which we operate, infects everything – from our love lives to our careers, to how we read. Indeed, unless your name is Leo Tolstoy, you just don’t write 150,000 word novels anymore. So when The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan thudded through my letterbox, weighing in at 500-plus oversized pages, I gulped.
Beyond the imposing size, another rule-bending contrast soon surfaces – the pace of the evolving story is at a crawl. This is deliberate – the author has focussed not on action but immersion, embedding the reader in the place and time in which the story is set: Kentucky, in the South of the United States, circa 1950s. Morgan does not want her characters judged through a modern lens – rather, she wants us to see the racist father as more than a sum of racist parts; and to appreciate the context in which a loving mother, married into one of the oldest and richest land-owning families in the State, also has illicit sex with a bonded labourer – a black man. And so to acclimatise, the pace of the story is offset and we, the reader, are invited to immerse ourselves – to experience harvest, and cider making, and hog killing. And to ‘see’ a thoroughbred horse up-close – its mane, its velvet hide and sinew.
The strategy is sound but for such an approach to pay-off, the prose has to compensate. For the reader to happily wallow in verbose description, the writing has to be special. And so the good news is that The Sport of Kings is sublimely written, and the storytelling achingly beautiful.
The protagonist is a boy, Henry, the only child of a Kentucky landowner who is set to inherit not only status, land and material wealth, but also an unshakeable respect for his lineage. Or so his father desires:
JOHN HENRY: “…real knowledge begins with knowing your place in the world. Now, you are neither nigger, nor woman, nor stupid. You are a young man born into a very long, distinguished line. That confers some responsibility. Stay focused on your learning … You’ll never have an original thought, never be great, never invent anything truly new, and this shouldn’t bother you one bit. There’s nothing new under the sun. You just need to know your place …”
HENRY: “And what exactly is my place?”
JOHN HENRY: “Your place is as my son.”
The measured maturation of the boy, through adolescence and into manhood, runs parallel to the nation lurching toward the unknown, with the race-based status quo on the cusp of exploding. The story however is not about the eye of that Civil Rights storm, but rather hones in on the outermost ripples it generated – in one family, in one boy, a thousand miles away from the epicentre. And dovetailed with this track is one lonely little boy’s interest and eventual obsession with horses – with breeding thoroughbreds. The fusion of such random elements could so easily have bombed, or at least felt like over-reaching, but Morgan has assembled her cast with expert care, and in so doing has created something truly unique. Subtly, she posits a notion of inexorable betterment – a theory of evolution, to coin a phrase. Morgan shows that modern life is not all rubbish.
Any Cop?: My advice..? Bend the rules and invest the time that this novel demands. It’ll pay you back, and with interest.