A Fine Day at The Races

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If the idea of a long novel about horses and horse racing has all the appeal of an afternoon at a seedy betting shop, read on. For Jane Smiley's Horse Heaven (Faber and Faber; 561 pages) turns out to go down quite easily-more like a pitcher of mint juleps at the Kentucky Derby. Smiley, who has already given us an epic about Greenland, an academic comedy set in the American Midwest and historical fiction about slavery, has as great a range and as much intellectual curiosity as any novelist writing today. In her latest book, she takes on a fresh topic and once again winds up in the winner's circle.

Horse Heaven is basically a book of vignettes that only occasionally interlock, and the real challenge for the reader is keeping all those characters, human and equine, straight. There is Justa Bob, a good-natured gelding who knows how to race, and Epic Steam, a stallion badly in need of a gelding. There is Buddy Crawford, a sleazy trainer who cares more about winning than about the horses (even after he finds Jesus), and Farley Jones, who adheres to The Tibetan Book of Thoroughbred Training ("Do not see any fault anywhere ... Do not hanker after signs of progress"). There are the rich owners, desperate to get their playthings to the Breeders' Cup, and the struggling breeders, the jockeys and the horse masseurs. And above all, there are the races, riveting set pieces that Smiley creates with a passion that cannot help being infectious.

Somehow this plotless work becomes suspenseful. The promising Thoroughbred goes lame; the unassuming little chestnut wins a race. "A football game is one story, one day a week. That's boring," a track addict explains to his son. "A day at the races is thousands of stories, with grass around, trees around, a breeze, some mountains in the background." Smiley tells just a few of those stories, but it makes for a fine day out.