For many reasons, C.E. Morgan’s second novel, The Sport of Kings, is an oddity among recent American fictions. It is a vast and audacious and self-conscious regional novel, one that is tied to the land, history, and social concerns of Central (or East-Central) Kentucky over many generations. Numbered among those concerns, anyone familiar with the region will know, is the sport of horse racing, and along these lines, the novel tells the story of the Forge family — from the self-educated patriarch John Henry to his son Henry and his granddaughter Henrietta — and their attempt to breed a thoroughbred on the level of Secretariat. But as it trails the Forge family throughout its history, the novel also documents the wrongs they perpetrate against others — from their slaveholding past to their rotten present. What results is an ambitious, beautifully written, and melodramatically plotted thing, a book that sweeps the reader into the alien corn.
Morgan’s novel is without question the year’s most ambitious (so far), but whatever its faults and glories, I’ve noticed a regional hesitance, an unsure hand on the part of its critics, who either read it as a caricature of Kentucky (it isn’t) or somehow as if it could take place anywhere (let’s say Ohio). These critics should admit at least one thing about The Sport of Kings: it has revealed a glaring lapse in America’s cross-regional literacy. It’s not so much that our left hand doesn’t know our right too well; it’s more that none of our fingers have ever touched the others.
With this in mind, I decided to consult my mother, a Kentuckian (yes, with a regal lilt) who has spent much of her life near the Ohio River, and who understands both horse racing and the social codes peculiar to life in the region. She also happens to be a fan of C.E. Morgan — though I doubt she would use the word “fan” — a teacher, and a prodigious reader. In the below discussion, we try to get to the bottom of The Sport of Kings. Otherwise, I have only one note. She calls me by my family name: “Kyle.”
Jonathon “Kyle” Sturgeon: This novel is big in every sense. Could you tell it was the same author of the much shorter All the Living (2009)?
Cassandra Sturgeon: Yes, I know what you’re asking. The first book was shorter; it basically had three characters. The story was simple; the characters were so developed. Her style is still descriptive in terms of landscape, environment. But, yes, I could tell it was the same writer. If there had not been a name on the book, I would have known it was her.
When you open The Sport of Kings, you first find a map of the Ohio River Valley, an area that you know well, having spent much of your life in and around it. The novel spans hundreds of years, but much of it stays in this area. Were you convinced by her descriptions of the land?
When the book begins, her ancestors are coming across the territory from Virginia into Kentucky. Now, I don’t know that part of the state as well [as other parts], but I do know it. And that section of the book was interesting. Some of the areas — let’s say around Cincinnati — I had to think about. I’ve been through the poorer parts of Cincinnati, where the book moves later. Most of it stayed around Paris, Kentucky — I know the landscape there. She did venture off a little further east. She describes of all of this landscape well, but she sometimes over-describes it.
Well, let’s start with John Henry. As a white patriarch, did you find him convincing? Which is to ask: is he a kind of Kentuckian you’re familiar with?
Oh, definitely yes. It was as if she knew him. I’m sure — given that she has lived in the state of Kentucky — she has known people like him. I have known men like him. Listen, every character in this book has an obsession. His obsession is with his ancestors. Maybe some readers would believe he is exaggerated, but I would say he is not exaggerated to the degree they might believe. When I first met John Henry, I respected his feeling, his pride in his family history. We’re better off knowing the history of our families, their stories and struggles and triumphs. But obviously you can’t respect him after that.
And he very much teaches this family history to Henry, his son. You think Henry will reject it, but ultimately he doesn’t.
Right. John Henry teaches him the family history alongside [the canon] of Greek philosophy. But it takes Henry a long time to come back to the family. Just like it does any young man — accepting his independence and his need to be his own self.
But the women in the novel come to despise these men.
Now, Lavinia, Henry’s mother, who is deaf — that seemed like a given. I think John Henry married her for that reason. She had no control — the women in the novel have no control. And when she did gain control — when she had sex with Filip [a black worker on the farm] — John Henry saw to it that damage was done to her.
That raises the question of race and racism in the book. Did you feel that the racism of the Forge family — a blanket vision of racial hierarchy — was of the particular sort you saw before and during and after the Civil Rights era?
Well, yes, Kyle. When I was writing about the book, after reading it, it was clear to me that it was a novel about racism. Racism, genetic selection, the erosion of the environment, Greek and Roman philosophy. Henry’s obsession was with genetic selection, not only with the horses, but for himself — with his family. It was his downfall. The Forge family’s obsession with family, class, and their racism.
John Henry, the first patriarch, thinks that horse racing is akin to gambling or “easy money.” It’s beneath his family and his vision for his son. And he wants to make sure the Forge family stays rich.
Yes, and the book reckons with that by the end. John Henry was obsessed with family history and the family’s position.
Let’s talk about the horse racing aspects of the novel. As someone who grew up with horse racing culture, did you find this convincing? It really is how The Sport of Kings is being sold and marketed.
Let’s start with the Derby. When the Forge family first goes to the Derby — and I noted this at the time, on page 161 — she takes liberties to set up the theme of racism. Still, I’m not sure Morgan has been to too many Derbies. Now they do not sing but one verse of “My Old Kentucky Home” — it could be they did in long ago past — but they don’t (for obvious reasons) sing the verse about “darkies.” In her novel they sing the second verse. I can never remember that being sung, and I’ve watched the Derby all my life. So I didn’t get a sense about the Derby being realistic.
But the rest of the horse racing — the training, the genetics — I found that fascinating. I don’t think I can ever look at a horse again the same way. I’ll now look at the head, to see if the head is up, the legs. There are a lot of things about a horse that I will look at now. I’m sure she studied. People in the horse racing industry may disagree, I don’t know. I found it to be okay.
She seems to be attuned to the scumminess of horse racing, too.
Right, the medication they give the horses, for one. The risk taken to produce these horses is unbelievable. The lengths they go to for genetic purposes…
…And that’s a theme. The inbreeding of these horses, which comes to affect the larger plot. There is a moment of shock in the novel that has to do with incest…
…I was not shocked by that moment.
I knew the incest was coming.
I was shocked! What did you think about it? Did you think it was in keeping with the flow of the novel?
Like I said, I expected it. I realized it was coming when Judith [Henry’s wife] came into the picture. And I’m shocked [Morgan] didn’t put it in before that time. I think it happened earlier in [Morgan]’s mind. Look, you have to read the character. When Henrietta was having reckless sex in bars and around the barn — just the way it happened — it was a sign that she was being abused by her father.
I’m seeing now the way Henry groomed his daughter, almost the way he groomed his horses. I guess I should have seen it coming.
That’s what you’ve got me for.
OK, changing gears. The novel is huge, thematically. It is long. There are these “Interlude” sections that are far weirder than the normal narrative parts. Sometimes they go way back in history, whether it’s the story of Scipio, a runaway slave, or the Forge family history.
Look, after I read about 200 pages, I realized that one of the monumental themes of the novel is this idea passed on by the Forge family from Greek philosophy, that “man is the measure of all things.” But once I got that far into the book, I thought, “Well, an editor is the measure of a great novel.”
I did not need to know all about some of the minor characters. Some of the characters were long described but not well described. Max, Marie. And the Reverend. She didn’t do as well with these characters. I could have had more about the Reverend.
Well, let’s be honest. She did seem more at home writing about the racist patriarchs than the targets of their racism. But I know you also had some problems with those moments when the narrator directly addresses the reader. Did you think it was the sign of the novel getting a little out of control?
You saw that? I guess you’re right. I think that she felt the need to do that signaled something wrong. But we’ve not talked about Maryleen. I particular liked her sections, especially the one about apple picking season. And then it gets to her father, Filip, who says, “When Jesus comes back, everyone will be changed.” And then he says, “We can not get his ass back here soon enough.” I liked that. [My mother laughs for several seconds.] And then [family cook] Maryleen leaves. I’m not sure why. She warned Filip about messing around with Lavinia. Later she comes back vengeful — and obviously John Henry is responsible for his death, although it doesn’t say that he was killed, we know he was murdered by John Henry. I see her purpose, but her hatred wasn’t spoken of enough. And then she comes back to finish the story. We’ve not talked about Allmon, either.
Right. He’s a principal character in the book. He has his struggles as a black kid with a white father in Kentucky. Later in the book, after he has been incarcerated, he goes to work for the Forge family caring for their thoroughbreds. And after Henry realizes he’s having sex with his daughter, he tries to offer him a deal to stay away from her.
She captures his anger. His anger as a current social dilemma. I understood his anger and his truth. She writes of Allmon, “real survival is learning to misremember disremember unremember everything as you follow orders, scramble, bargain, fight. Especially fight.” Allmon got lost in his loss. I loved that quote.
And after Henrietta falls in love with him, and really fetishizes him — which he addresses — he takes the deal from Henry, which means that he has to stay away from her, and that he’ll get paid handsomely if Hellsmouth wins the Triple Crown.
Yes, but here’s the thing. He takes that deal, and he takes it all the way to the end. And I’m not sure that by the end he remembers that. That’s a lot of us: we make a deal with the devil, and then we don’t want to pay for it.
[Morgan] is tremendous at character development. Though one of my criticisms would be that there are too many characters in the book.
What did you think about the dialogue? It’s Kentucky talk.
The dialogue is good. I thought it felt real, sounds like Kentucky. But there is the problem of over-describing. On page 353, she writes, “There aren’t too many words; there aren’t enough words; ten thousand books, all the world’s dictionaries and there would never be enough.” Is that the narrator speaking? A character? I think it’s C.E. Morgan. I thought, “She certainly believes this.”
So that’s a weakness. I’ll admit that when I first sat down with the novel I wondered whether we could call it a Great Regional Novel.
Yes, it is a Great Regional Novel. It speaks of all the things that matter to people in Central Kentucky. The horse industry, race, class, and ancestry. All of those things do matter. In Kentucky, it’s always, “Who do you come from? Who is your daddy?” If you go to those places and say, “I am Kyle Sturgeon,” they’ll say: “Well, who was your daddy?” In that manner.
Let’s talk about that. You’re Kentucky born.
…You’ve spent much of your life in Kentucky. How did the novel make you feel about that? Were you conflicted, proud, mad?
I felt it was a true depiction. It is realistic. I don’t know that I felt proud. I thought it was a good story about the people in Kentucky. Whether the people in Kentucky will see it that way, I don’t know. The people who read the book will like it.
The problem is, how many people will read the book? Will it be available? I know Sherry [my great-aunt, like my grandmother, a librarian] had a hard time getting the book in the library. Ordinarily, they would have the book. Do the right readers know about the book? If that’s the case, it will be a book that people will certainly talk about.
From my perspective, you just don’t see a novel like this — one that considers broad, national themes — come from a region anymore. Not often, anyway. It makes you think of Faulkner, Cather, or at least Marilynne Robinson.
In that sense, it is a great book. Even the story of Allmon — I see that everyday in my school. The families are so poor. They don’t know who their fathers are. Or their families are in jail. Their struggles aren’t any different from Allmon’s struggles. Think of the young black men being shot in Louisville right now. I see all of those different levels of society, all of those different stories, in the novel.
Did you think their is a single character at the heart of the novel, or was it a bunch of characters?
I think she wanted it to be a lot of characters, but I think in the end it was John Henry. His son, Henry, was an extension. He is isolated — his father is the only male he’s ever known. And he does the same thing to his daughter, Henrietta. It all goes back to John Henry, the patriarch. The idea that “man is the measure of all things” runs through the novel, of course. But there is a quote: “Man may be the measure of all things, but no single man can be, because there’s no such thing as a single man.” That was the point. It was about John Henry, and his belief in man as the measure. But he was wrong.
She is clearly warning against patriarchy, against the male obsession with the family name, the first born, or the single leader. Or even the family itself. Is Kentucky still like that?
That’s a typical Southern thing. And, yes. It was how I grew up. In our case, it was “Whose daddy has the big farm?” “Whose daddy went to the University of Kentucky?” Or whose father was the judge or lawyer around the county. If you said those names to our mothers, they will still hold weight. These families are still around, and they still hold power. It is not in the past. They are compelled to maintain their name and their standing. They may have the biggest, oldest houses with the most prized possessions — even if they may be eating cat food. They’re still going to maintain their name and their appearance of well-being.
I know you said John Henry reminds you of Trump.
When Henry asks John Henry why he’s in the legislature, he responds: “There are so few well-educated men, we’re all but obligated to serve the public. The world is nearly overrun by idiots these days,” and he continues with racist language that also disparages poor whites. In his lessons, he’s always racist and, I guess you would say, classist.
It’s still like this: If you just went to a basketball pre-party at the University of Kentucky, you’d have all the white rich “daddies” in the state of Kentucky there. And you know exactly what they’re thinking. They think the players “work” for them.
But I think the novel would read well anywhere in the South, really. From Arkansas to Georgia, from Kentucky to Louisiana, from to Florida to Texas — especially Texas.
You feel like these patriarchs are alive and well in the South.
Oh, wow. Yes.