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Jane Smiley might consider a patent on virtuosity. In A Thousand Acres she managed to stage King Lear in the American Midwest and won a Pulitzer Prize. That novel gave her readers an extraordinary experience: What began as a gentle tale of the white-bread heartland became, layer by layer, an account of family disintegration, and then, ever deeper, a confession of past incest and its harrowing effect. After that virtuoso performance, Smiley went on to chronicle such diverse topics as the hilarious goings-on at a midwestern agricultural school (Moo, 1995) and the rigors of 19th century pioneer life (The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, 1998).
With her latest novel, Smiley changes horses once again, aiming her prodigious writing talents at an entirely new subject. In Horse Heaven, she manages to paint a big scene with a wide focus, using a field of characters, each set off at the starting line at the same time, each captured at contemporaneous flashes as she rounds the course of the plot. 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.
The novel focuses on four promising two-year-olds, all aristocrats. Each bears a stamp of individuality that will lead him or her to the greatness of winning stakes races, to the pleasant middle class of the riding horse, or to the horse hell of the butcher. The humans revolve around the horses, training, betting, vetting, riding, and owning them. One of the good things about this book - and there are many good things - is that the humans and the horses make equal claims on our respect and interest. Smiley even manages to give us the horses' inner monologue in a convincing way.
The horses ascend or descend, the humans fall in and out of love, and both yearn for victory or riches or an end to boredom if they already have both of the former. The most "successful" human in the book, that is, the one who wins the Breeders' Cup, creates for himself, simultaneous with the doping of his winner, his own redolent version of hell, stuck with a blackmailing, fat, sweaty, crooked veterinarian. The trainer of Limitless, flaky enough to post the Tibetan Book of Thoroughbred Training on his door ("Do not hanker after signs of progress. . . ."), wins the prestigious Arc de Triomphe.
But the best characters are two veteran geldings, both saved miraculously from abuse and death, and, perhaps because of their incapacity for sexual love, gifted with a kind of saintly ability to prophesy. It is hard to believe that this works, but it does.
This is an altogether different book from A Thousand Acres. Where there was a slow, ineluctable wind-down to the raging patriarch on the moor, here is a fully booked clutch of rich people, psychics, horse masseurs, wise old gelding racers, Hispanic jocks, and raging stud colts. It's the sort of book that inspires lists. But throughout her work, Smiley maintains an avoidance of melodrama, a deep cultivation of character, and a straight ahead narrative style.
There are as many intriguing stories in this work as there are in a rich human life, and Smiley manages to bring them together in a deft directorial performance. I don't think I am giving it away to say that in the end everyone pretty well gets what he or she wants, even if it makes them miserable to get it.