I’ve Got a Horse Right Here
By Bill Ott
Fri, 11/19/2010 - 09:28
There are two kinds of horse-racing stories. The most common are the sentimental ones (think National Velvet) in which an underdog horse triumphs over seemingly insurmountable odds. Sometimes the same formula is used in more realistic treatments of the racing world (Seabiscuit) that embroider the march to victory with plenty of social and historical landscape. Then there are the other kind of horse stories, those that play against sentimentality, using the unique atmosphere of the racetrack and the gambling world that supports it to explore the inevitability of loss.
If you don’t know Willy Vlautin’s work, you might think his third novel, Lean on Pete, belonged in the sentimental camp. After all, how could a tale about a boy and the horse he loves not be sentimental? But if you have read Vlautin, you know that he writes spare, knifelike prose that slices deep into the vulnerable hearts of his struggling, lonely characters. Teenager Charley Thompson, newly arrived in Portland, Oregon, takes to hanging out at Portland Meadows racetrack, where he finds a friend—an aging Thoroughbred named Lean on Pete. That’s exactly what Charley does, at least for a while, until Pete, bound for the slaughterhouse, needs to lean on Charley. The perilous journey on which Charley and Pete embark must end badly—think of Kirk Douglas and another loyal horse on the run from civilization in Lonely Are the Brave—but on the road, Charley tells Pete the story of his life, and in this young boy’s flatly descriptive but heartbreaking words, Vlautin transforms what might have been a weepy TV-movie of a novel into a tough-and-tender account of a boy, a big-hearted horse, and a mostly unforgiving world. What Daniel Woodrell does for the hardscrabble Ozarks, Vlautin does for the underside of the New West.
For an even more unsparing look at racetrack life, try Jaimy Gordon’s recently published Lord of Misrule. The language of the racetrack, like Yiddish, is rich in the ironies of daily living. Gordon brings that language to crackling life in this moving and lyrical portrait of the inhabitants of the “backside” at a no-account West Virginia racetrack. The equilibrium of life for the grooms, trainers, small-time owners, and even the horses that populate the backside’s shed rows is disrupted by the arrival of a frizzy-haired girl and her horse-owner boyfriend. Suddenly, Medicine Ed, a 73-year-old groom and racetrack lifer, gets a “funny, goofered feeling about the way things was going.”
As the inevitable plays itself out—the novel is structured around four horses (including the titular Lord of Misrule) running in four races—we come to feel not only the idiosyncratic camaraderie shared by the backside inhabitants but also the special rhythm of life lived near the “fly-loud” barn. This is not the world of Seabiscuit, where the right horse winning the right race makes everything seem good; this is a goofered world ruled by misrule. But sometimes, as Gordon tells it, the smell of pine tar and horse manure can function like a “devil’s tonic.” Words can do that, too, as this nearly word-perfect novel makes abundantly clear.