Friday, January 6, 2017

In Our Midst

Low expectation enhances an experience and conversely only Dickens could get away with great ones. When I find myself touting a movie or book I have that sinking feeling of over-selling it. On the other end of the transaction my critical voice is likely to be aroused if someone tells me La La Land is the best film of the year or the latest Joyce Carol Oates novel a must-read.

Count me as one of those cranky card-carrying contrarians. I can do without fan-fare maybe because it robs me of discovery. Having said that ………..

I’m going to toot my horn for a sleeper masterpiece novel. The book is C.E. Morgan’s epic saga entitled, The Sport of Kings. Don’t let the name discourage you. There is a touch of irony in the title. It is more about southern racism than horse racing. In fact the core of the narrative is the joining of these two in the folly of human and equine breeding. No one in the book, on two legs or four, ever quite escapes their lineage, descendants of slaveholders, those in bondage or those bred.

Morgan’s language has echoes of Melville and Faulkner. Her voice is viscerally tough yet as lyrical as any poet who comes to mind. She gets close, then inside her characters, their skin and vocabulary. At the same time she sings the Kentucky landscape off the page. Add to this a spiritual dimension as an extension of her capacious humanity. It doesn't hurt that she attended Harvard Divinity School.

C.E. Morgan is forty years old. She shuns celebrity even as her first book, All the Living, won significant literary prizes seven years ago. Sadly, this book seems to have been overlooked in spite of notable reviews in the New Yorker and NY Times. I say this because I have been able to renew it twice from my library with nobody on the waiting list. Perhaps the 550 pages turn readers away. After I read it Peggy is having her turn. 

Both of us have savored one passage after another pausing to marvel at her linguistic risks. She plunges the reader into nether regions and then lifts us to transcendent heights...often in the same paragraph. In one digression two runaway slaves are crossing the Ohio river into Cincinnati from Kentucky...

He could already feel his ball and chain spirit becoming no heavier than a feather. He unties his tattered, sand-caked brogans and leaves them on the shore. He does not want to wear the shoes of slavery on the other side. Carry us, carry us, carry us and then the rocky bed swoops away from under their feet. The hungry current carrying them as they plow through the eddies.... A brief thrashing sound, another gasp and she slips below. Her hands then crash once more on the surface like the sound of two oars smacking. He tears his eyes from salvation to look back and sees only the white ructure she's made on the water. He is pulled powerfully between two worlds.... Her legs draw up suddenly in a wrenching spasm and her arms whip wildly about and spin for purchase... then release and like a stone, Abby drops away. He fights for the shore as if the devil himself were after him.... He's weeping in horror and drinking the river.... His broad, white latticed back is a curtain drawn on the crude festival of the South.

If she is given to excess, bless her for it. If the plot stumbles here and there it is to be forgiven. Her ambition cannot be contained nor is her grasp ever beyond her reach. One major character is, like Shakespeare's Falstaff, an essential voice but not quite of this world. The Sport of Kings exposes the sham and shame of racism, its virulence passed along as self-hatred. This is a book for the ages, an American classic in our midst.

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