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Read by Mary Beth Hurt
Five CDs, 6 hours
Spanning two years on the circuit, from Kentucky and California to New York and Paris, Horse Heaven puts us among trainers and track brats, horse-obsessed girls, nervy jockeys, billionaire owners and restless wives. Here is the trainer of dazzling integrity and his opposite: a wicked prince of the tract, headed for still another swindle; here are the gamblers and hangers-on. And in an amazing feat of imagination, here are the magnificent Thoroughbreds themselves, from the filly orphaned at birth to the brown horse who always wins by a nose, a lovable "claimer" who passes from owner to owner on a heartwrenching journey down from the winner's circle.
All the constant excitement of racing courses through a novel that opens up a fascinating world even as it moves us with its exploration of wanting, loving, and striving; of our mysterious bond with animals; and, above all, of our profound desire to connect-emotionally, sexually, spiritually-with each other.
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It takes a great deal of faith to gear a novel this horse-besotted to the general public. Horse love is one of those things either you get or you don't, and for the vast majority of the populace, horse stories tend to read like porn written for 13-year-old girls. The good news, then, is that while a love of all things equine is not a prerequisite for enjoying Jane Smiley's Horse Heaven, a love of human perversity is. Racing, after all, is at worst a dangerous, asset-devouring folly and at best an anachronism, as one of her horse trainers notes:
The Industry Leaders had made it their personal mission to bring horse racing to the attention of the general public, with the NFL as their model and television as their medium of choice, which was fine with Farley, though his own view was that horse racing out at the track, newspaper reading, still photography, placing bets in person, and writing thank-you notes by hand were all related activities, and football, ESPN, video, on-line betting, and not writing thank-you notes at all were another set of related activities.A crucial piece of information for Smiley fans is that, among her many novels, Horse Heaven most resembles Moo. (And there's even a pig!) In fact, with these two books it appears that this versatile author has finally found a home in which to unpack her impressive gifts: that is, the sprawling, intricately plotted satirical novel. Her target in this case is not academia but horse racing--less commonly satirized but, here at least, just as fruitfully so. Wickedly knowing, dryly comic, the result is as much fun to read as it must have been to write.
None of which means that Horse Heaven is a casual read. For starters, one practically needs a racing form to keep track of its characters, particularly when their stories begin to overlap and converge in increasingly unlikely and pleasing ways. Perhaps it says something about the novel that the easiest figures to follow are the horses themselves: loutish Epic Steam, the "monster" colt; the winsome filly Residual; supernaturally focused Limitless; and trembling little Froney's Sis. And that's not to forget Horse Heaven's single most prepossessing character, Justa Bob--a little swaybacked, a little ewe-necked, but possessed of a fine sense of humor and an abiding disdain for winning races by anything but a nose.
Then there are the humans, including but not limited to socialite Rosalind Maybrick, her husband Al (who manufactures "giant heavy metal objects" in "distant impoverished nationlike locations"), a Zen trainer, a crooked trainer, a rapper named Ho Ho Ice Chill, an animal psychic, and a futurist scholar, as well as attendant jockeys, grooms, and hangers-on. (Not to mention poor, ironically named Joy, a few years out of Moo U and still having problems relating.) It's a little frustrating to watch this cast come and go and fight for Smiley's attention; you glimpse them so vividly, and then they disappear for another hundred pages, and it breaks your heart.
But there are certainly worse problems a novel could have than characters to whom you grow overattached. A plot this convoluted would be one, if only it weren't so hard to stop reading. There are elements of magic realism, astounding coincidences, unabashed anthropomorphism. (At one point--while Justa Bob throws himself against his stall in sorrow at leaving his owner's tiny, wordless mother behind--this reviewer cried, "Shameless!" even as she began to tear up.) Improbably, it all works. Horse Heaven is a great, joyous, big-hearted entertainment, a stakes winner by any measure, and for both horse lovers and fans of Smiley's dry, character-based wit, a cause for celebration on par with winning the Triple Crown. --Mary ParkFrom the Publisher:
"A fast-paced, fetchingly detailed, wide-angled view of the world of horse breeding--and racing--and another lively illustration of Smiley's industrious literary work-ethic and gift for trasmuting the products of her obviously extensive research into compelling fiction."
-- Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"A narrative act of balancing so ambitious and so precisely executed that it becomes necessary to see Smiley as half acrobat, half writer; the novel is at least as athletic as the animals it describes. It is also a profound act of love... the horses move beyond sympathy to an even higher state of grace."
-- Pam Houston, Elle
"Smiley, it turns out, knows a prodigious amount about Thoroughbreds, and she is as good at describing the stages of their lives, their temperaments and personalities as she is in chronicling the ambitions, financial windfalls and ruins, love affairs, partings and reconciliations of her large cast of human characters.... Written with high spirits and enthusiasm, distinguished by Smiley's wry humor (as in Moo), the novel gallops into the home stretch without losing momentum."
-- Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"A spirited new novel...Witty, energetic sentences are a hallmark of the novel...What's remarkable about Smiley's handling of horses as characters is that she manages to bring it off at all--and more, she does it brilliantly. Through an amazing imaginative leap, she enters into their heads and lets us see the world as they do...The racetrack provides an ideal, multidimensional backdrop for all the plots and subplots Smiley puts in motion...It's deeply satisfying to read a work of fiction so informed about its subject and so alive to every nuance and detail...She has immersed herself in the anecdotes and the lore of the track, and that allows her to create some nifty set pieces...A big, ambitious book....A smart, warmhearted, winning book "
-- The New York Times Book Review
"Smiley's horses almost steal the show from the humans in this symphonic celebration of the byzantine world of thoroughbred horse racing--although a mischievous Jack Russell terrier named Eileen rules supreme whenever the all-seeing narrative eye pans her way.... Smiley enriches her electrifying and at times melodramatic tale of two years on the thoroughbred racing circut with a wealth of intimate knowledge about horse breeding, training, and racing, not to mention sensuous description and supple human and equine psychology."
-- Booklist (starred review)
"Jane Smiley might consider a patent on virtuosity . . . Thackeray did it with the beau monde in Vanity Fair, Heller with war in Catch 22, and now Smiley with the world of thoroughbred racing . . . There are as many intriguing stories in this work as there are in a rich hunman life, and Smiley manages to bring them together in a deft directorial performance."
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