Randall Jarrell famously defined a novel as "a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it." We are squarely in Jarrell territory with this one, The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan.
Through much of this novel I was in thrall--to the story, the writing, the ambition--I was impressed, I was thrilled. And then by the end, not so much. I just glanced at Amazon and Goodreads and see that the average rating is, respectively, 3.6 and 3.7. Count me among the masses, I guess, because ultimately, although I'd started out thinking this was going to earn the big five-oh along with a gushing rave, I'd say that the Amazonians and Goodreaders have it just about right. Ultimately, this is a good but not a great book, and I'll try to grapple here with why.
There is much to admire. There is gorgeous writing. There are some well drawn characters. Mostly, and it's why this is a notable book even if not a great one, there is broad scope that takes in big questions and takes on the most crucial, the central, the basic defining issue of U.S. society and U.S. history: racism. This is a narrative that contains multitudes, from the evolution of millions of earthly species to the particular individual tales of a number of particular individuals, from enslaved Africans creating the riches of 19th to 21st century Kentucky to the self-proclaimed genteel bluebloods living off those riches, from the great Secretariat to a series of his descendants, from babies to children to preachers to receptionists to prisoners to trainers and grooms and jockeys, from lynchings to beatings to trotting to planting to drowning. To the landed gentry, always back to the strutting entitled wealthy white landed gentry of bluegrass country, around whom the story revolves.
So what's not to love? Some of it is quibbles. That gorgeous writing does spiral off in places toward the realm of overblown overdone verbiage. In fact the author herself, in a bizarre aside that I wish Morgan's editor had been able to talk her out of including and that in fact has the feel of a response to an editor's efforts to talk her down from some of the lengthy loopy flights of language, has the omniscient anonymous (or maybe not) narrator suddenly break the fourth wall briefly to speak directly to the reader and defend against the charge that it's all "too purple, too florid." Whoa! Way to break the spell, not to mention protest too much. But okay I was down for the most part with the many long, language-rich passages, most of them evocations of the natural world or natural history. Mostly, they're beautiful, and mostly they work--they draw the reader in, are in some places pure poetry, breathtaking. Not everywhere though. A quibble.
Sadly, some of the Jarrellian "something wrong" rises above the quibble level. SPOILER ALERT from here on.
As I read, especially as I passed the halfway mark, and definitively once I'd finished, I felt troubled by the unevenness of character development. Surprisingly, although perhaps it's unfair to be surprised, by my read the female characters get short shrift. The deepest, richest most multidimensional characters are male. Most of the novel's women are, well, sketchier, thinner, less full. Several have sort of walk-on parts, play a plot-related role, and walk off. Mothers, mostly, the first of whom, Henry's, is pretty much a cipher; the next, Henrietta's, gets a bit more fleshed out but is quickly disposed of; the third, Allmon's, is more fully treated yet still, somehow, it seems to me, is on the page primarily to fulfill her plot function. Maryleen, the onetime cook, is dispensed with early on, only to re-emerge at the end as a sort of deus ex machina and then disappear again. Is she meant to be the writer of these pages? I hope not, because I don't think she'd treat some of the characters the way the actual writer does.
Then there's the main female character, Henrietta. Troublingly, she seems to me to be not fully realized either, not in the way her father Henry or her lover Allmon are. There's something hollow to her, something not quite filled in. Now it may be that this is purposeful. That Morgan writes Henrietta in this way to convey how damaged she is by one of the central horrors of the story, the fact that her father rapes her for many years, probably from early adolescence on until her death in her late twenties. I use the word rape because that of course is what it is when a father has sexual relations with his child, regardless of how the father sees it and also regardless of how the child sees it, must see it, forces herself to see it, doesn't allow herself to see it or think of it in order to survive. But I don't believe the word rape is ever used in the novel; actually, the deed is never shown, nor even directly referred to, nor ever acknowledged directly in word or thought by either the victim, Henrietta, or the perpetrator, her father Henry. Which I'll address more in a minute. Here, though, the point is that it's not clear to me how I was supposed to read Henrietta the character on the page. If she is meant to be the walking wounded, which she absolutely is, if she is drawn as finding a way to function via dissociation, via separating herself from the central trauma of her life, via acting out in various potentially dangerous ways, that, I guess, is accomplished. And if so, okay, that explains the as-if, not-quite aspect of the character's portrayal. I don't know, though, if this explanation can be stretched all the way to explain the decision she makes when she realizes she's pregnant. As shown in a brief scene by the side of a road that as far as I can tell takes place over ten or fifteen minutes at the most, Henrietta sort of skims her mind over the situation and opts stunningly quickly to go ahead and have the baby. This did not ring true to me. She's been fucking her father as well as a man she's fallen in true deep love with, she has no way of knowing who has impregnated her, and she doesn't even take any real time to consider having an abortion, let alone decide to have one. I don't know, maybe I'm not being fair, maybe I'm lumping this in with every TV show that never allows any woman to have an abortion, that always has everyone who gets pregnant go ahead and have the baby, which is not how it works in real life nor should it, in real life women often decide, as is their right, to have abortions--maybe this doesn't fit with those TV offenses, because maybe her carrying out the pregnancy is a function of her damage, of her not-all-thereness. I don't know. It bothered me. But okay.
What bothered me worse was Henrietta dying in childbirth. It disappointed me deeply. There were so many other ways the story could have gone. Instead, by my read, it felt as if here went yet another, the main, female character being shuttled off the scene so the story could get back to its focus on the men.
I've gone on too long and will have to abbreviate the rest. Also, I didn't intend to go so negative on this novel as it does have a lot to recommend it. It's one I could see arguing about, could see another reader countering all my criticisms and that would be cool. But. A couple more things.
I was also deeply disappointed that the character Henry never, to put it simplistically, gets his comeuppance. Maybe I'm wrong, but by my read, despite his vile racism and despite his vile sexual predation against his own daughter, on balance he remains a sympathetic character. We are with him in his head a great deal, and especially as the novel takes its final turns toward the end, there are indications that he is growing, changing, opening, regretting. There are intimations of, lord help us, redemption. Well that's the author's prerogative. It too rings false, at least for me.
Then there's the end--the sacrifice? the narrative tying-up device? the gunshot suicide? the drowning?--of Allmon. I had my doubts, my unease, about the portrayal of this character throughout. There are places in his story, there are scenes, for example in prison, that strike me as, sorry, stereotypical, even though I understand that is the furthest thing from the author's good intentions. His life, his thoughts, his feelings feel authentic sometimes but not all the time. I just don't think the attempt to create this character has quite been pulled off. But okay, close enough. Until. Except. Really? The Tragic Mulatto? He really has to go down in flames? Crazed and destroyed by the racist system, the white power structure, the rich white man who--note well--does not die, is spared, will raise Allmon's and Henrietta's child as his own, none the poorer after the insurance settlement, much the wiser, kinder, mellower white man. Sigh. I don't know. It doesn't sit right. Is this really the only imaginable outcome to this story? Couldn't Allmon have been granted some agency? If not a happy ending (although why not, after all his suffering?), then some more complex conclusion, some road forward? Something more than destruction?
In this Commonweal interview The Sport of Kings author C.E. Morgan is asked about the fraught issue of white writers writing Black characters, the interviewer quoting "some hard questions" raised by Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda in their book The Racial Imaginary. I find Morgan's response unfortunate, to say the least. She goes off against, yep, "an embrace of political correctness with its required silences," and it gets worse from there, including the nonsensical assertion that "the far political right and the far political left aren't located on a spectrum but on a circle, where they inevitably meet in their extremity." So oy, there's that.
I can't help but contrast this book and its reception to the magnificent novel that drove me to revive this blog earlier this year: The Castle Cross The Magnet Carter by Kia Corthron. Kings was published by Farrar Straus Giroux, one of the big boys in the publishing world, a division of MacMillan, owned by the German conglomerate Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, with all the promotional money available that implies. FSG brought out Kings with much fanfare earlier this year, and it got the full treatment: many reviews, feature articles, author interviews. Corthron's novel was published by Seven Stories Press, an independent. It was reviewed, and there was some press, but it was not given the Big Book treatment the way Morgan's was. Does a white writer writing about race get more props than a Black writer writing about race, does the white writer's book get more attention, is it seen as a more important contribution, even when the Black writer's book is superior? Welcome to the USA.