Claudia Putnam's Reviews > The Sport of Kings

The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
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it was amazing
bookshelves: great-north-american-novels, literary-fiction, favorites

"Jesus ain’t gonna force your hand. He just lives in you like a hope and shows you what he looks like every day, and you get to decide if you’re gonna make your life look like justice, even though you can’t see him nowhere, or if you’re gonna make your life look like fame or fancy things or money and whatnot."

I read an interview on 0s & 1s recently in which an author talked about going from a finely reviewed debut novel to a second novel, a book that can define a writer's career. Because this is the move in which a writer really begins to introduce herself to her audience and her critics. Say you met someone on Match.com. On your first date you go to a nice little home concert featuring a folk duo. But now you want to take him clubbing. What's he gonna think? And who even knows what you have in reserve after that? Will your people be able to follow you?

CE Morgan's exquisite first novel, All the Living, is a slow, careful study of a woman under enormous pressure to find depth in a life that was going to be much more narrow than most of us hope when we are just starting out. It is striking because as a debut it mastered the current literary aesthetic.

The Sport of Kings is a great American novel. That bursting, broad-brush, big-canvas, multi-generational, class, race, issues-wrangling thing MFA schools try to scare students away from writing.

If you liked The Son, if you like Irving, Faulkner, McCarthy, Kesey, Melville, Urquhart, you really want to give this book a read. It's flawed, but so are all of those. It's flawed in the way all outsized, hyperbolic stories always are. All national narratives, or narratives that seek to interrogate the national narratives--are tall tales, and therefore can be operatic in tone, like the sections in The Son when the Mexican family is murdered, or when the POVs merge in Sometimes A Great Notion, or when the loggers become Bunyan-like in Irving, and don't get me started on Melville. You can see that Morgan has so many books and oral traditions in her head as she's writing this. All our best writers do. It's a shame that so many younger writers don't, in fact, seem to have read as much.

If you've read other reviews of this book, you've got wind of the fact that it deals with a lot of "heavy" matters. Incest, slavery, the legacy of slavery. Lots of cruelty. Unlikeable characters, etc. But you've probably also read that Morgan is such a good writer she'll draw you in anyway. This is true. It's sweet medicine. Whether or not you care about these characters--and even as I judged some of his decisions, I found I did care about Allmon and sympathized with him--you will care about the story. Or I did. Because this is our story. And I say that as a person who grew up in Northern New England and feels very disconnected from anything having to do with the South or the Midwest.

It's our narrative, and it's our narrative tradition--she's commenting on our storyline and on our way of telling it, braiding together approaches to the American literary tradition that define our canon until it feels that she is sitting on our shoulder, giving us a guided tour of our own landscape. She's the jockey; we're the horse, misbred for the race we're to run. And an artificial, circular race it is.

And the jockey too is defined by his situation.

You'll get what I'm saying when you read the book.

I want to say a thing about dialect. Because I read a review in the New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/201...) which made a minor complaint about Morgan's use of dialect, claiming it made at least one of the characters seem less intelligent. This, it seems to me, is a failure of the reader's, not the writer's. It reflects a prejudice that someone making any use of English that is not based on how English is read and written, because it may present a less educated person, also presents a less intelligent person. That's ridiculous. A), obviously a slave would not be educated, and obviously slaves did not speak the King's English, so why should we have expected them to sound like modern white English speakers? B), why would representing an escaping slave as speaking in a way other than educated, modern, white Americans sound automatically present her as less intelligent? This is a projection of the reader's. I trust Morgan to have done her diligence and to have come up with a reasonable approximation of slave dialect.

In any event, what matters is how we got here. Who did what to whom and why. And then what. And what shall set you free, at last?

I could write buckets more about this, about victimhood and victimology, but I think I'll leave it for readers to encounter on their own.









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Quotes Claudia Liked

C.E. Morgan
“What you guys don’t understand about women is a lot. Smart women, they get bored easy. This one here, she’s so much better than the rest, she has to manufacture her own challenge. If she didn’t come from behind, she’d fall asleep on her own goddamn feet.” Greeney”
C.E. Morgan, The Sport of Kings


Reading Progress

May 19, 2016 – Shelved
May 19, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
July 24, 2016 – Started Reading
September 2, 2016 – Finished Reading
September 3, 2016 – Shelved as: great-north-american-novels
September 3, 2016 – Shelved as: literary-fiction
April 28, 2018 – Shelved as: favorites

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Claudia Putnam Will have to renew at the library--it's a big book and I'm out of time, but it's really fan fan fan fantastic. I thought it would be great writing but a slog, you know--all the right but hard topics. Racism, white southern aristocratic assholes, the Klan, all that. And it is, but the characters are so well drawn and the writing is SO great and you are so immersed. It is shaping up to be a great American novel, no doubt.


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