By Jane Smiley
Alfred A. Knopf, $26
Racing fans come in two breeds: those who wonder what goes on in a horse's noggin and those who wonder about nothing but the numbers on the tote board. To the latter this novel by Smiley, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Thousand Acres, will read like a preposterous soap opera. But everyone else will find her book very much like racing itself: a profound drama of man and beast, galloping from hilarity to tragedy and back in less time than it takes a thoroughbred to reach the clubhouse turn.
Horse Heaven is a masterly work so long and complicated that a list of 49 characters is provided at the outset to help readers remember who's who. It's a peculiar work, too—as peculiar as any you are likely to read. One bettor successfully handicaps races by communicating telepathically with a gelding; another almost goes to pieces when he "jinxes" himself by looking at a nun on the way to the track. An enterprising veterinarian constructs an artificial horse vagina for office practice with building supplies from Home Depot. A slumping trainer spends as much as 20 minutes a day watching a pig gorge itself on horse offal.
Most peculiar of all is Smiley's apparent conviction that she understands what it's like to be a horse. The equine characters in Horse Heaven are every bit as complex and interesting as the human ones, and they possess a kind of intelligence and capacity for love that the author suggests we two-legged creatures ought to respect more than we do. Perhaps she's right. But even if she's not, Horse Heaven is a hell of a ride—particularly for those who believe that there's more to racing than placing bets.
The Putt at the End of The World
By Lee K. Abbott, Dave Barry, Richard Bausch, James Crumley, James W. Hall, Tami Hoag, Tim O'Brien, Ridley Pearson and Les Standiford
Warner Books, $23.95
It's commonly said that golf can spoil a good walk, so it's not surprising that it can spoil a good writer, too. But what a shock to discover that it can sour the work of nine writers, including best-selling humorist Barry and National Book Award winner O'Brien. The bad idea was for nine golf-loving authors to collaborate on an ostensibly humorous novel, each writing a chapter and then passing the book on to the next. The result is a pointless morass of unfunny jokes about putts and farts, sex scenes that no one but Beavis and Butt-head could find amusing and a host of toothless parodies that are embarrassing to their creators. It's a grim experience to read an entire comic novel without once chuckling. Don't try. Go for a good walk instead.