Reviewed: Blood Horses - Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Days at the races.

Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son
John Jeremiah Sullivan
Yellow Jersey Press, 272pp, £12.99

Hippophagy has always had a bad rep but this hasn’t prevented the occasional modest proposal promoting the consumption of horseflesh. As John Jeremiah Sullivan writes in Blood Horses:

A movement to make it acceptable sprouted in England and France in the mid-18th century, led by social reformers who went so far as to stage elaborate “horse dinners” in Paris and London, serving “chevaline” to hundreds of unsuspecting guests, but in many places . . . the taboo held firm – not as a crime but as a social prejudice. 

The realisation that we may all have been unwittingly consuming horse meat in our Findus nag-lasagnes is disconcerting primarily because it exposes the terrible economy that underpins our relationship with horses. It has become uncomfortably clear that old thoroughbreds run to pieces on the track aren’t put out to pasture at the end of their careers but are sold to shady butchers for €5 apiece. “A third of all US horses sent to the ‘processing plants’ in a given year come from racetracks,” Sullivan writes. “It is said that the ‘bone men’ will, if summoned, come directly to the track.”

Part memoir, part essayistic trot through equine history, literature and mythology, Blood Horses is full of disconcerting nuggets of this sort. Published in the US in 2004, it is Sullivan’s first book but his second to come out in the UK. Its release follows the success of Pulphead, a collection of essays published last year to great acclaim. Pulphead was astonishing: a series of empathetic, delicate but unsparing portraits of modern America. Blood Horses is more personal in its concerns and local in its scope and reads as what it is: a great first book.

The focus of Blood Horses is Sullivan’s relationship with his father, a poetically inclined sports journalist who spent his days “pecking out strange, clever stories about inconsequential games” while he smoked and drank himself to an early death. His father’s deathbed description of his greatest sporting memory – watching the horse Secretariat win the 1973 Kentucky Derby before going on to complete the “Triple Crown” (a racing treble that hasn’t been achieved in nearly 35 years) – haunts Sullivan and his quest to witness a similar spectacle provides the loose structure for what follows.

Interspersed with this story are reflections on horse lore and readings from the equine canon. These prompt thoughts of horses as links to the past. “A person today who knows horses, really knows them,” Sullivan writes, “understands more about what it meant in the past to be human than the most knowledgeable historian.” Lineage, breeding and tradition, themes that were developed in Pulphead in a national context, are in Blood Horses linked to more familial concerns. From the beginning, horse breeders were attempting to create a science of bloodlines and genetic inheritance. James Weatherby’s General Stud Book “preceded the first edition of Burke’s Peerage by 35 years,” Sullivan writes. “There was, in other words, an official registry of equine aristocracy before there was one for human beings.”

Sullivan’s own bloodline is as true as any Kentucky Derby winner’s and his privileged background is the source of much gentle selfflagellation. His family are the descendants of slave-owners and have a long-standing connection with the Bluegrass. Horse racing is still predominantly a white sport and the trade in horses has uncomfortable echoes of the slave trade. The only black faces in the paddock today, Sullivan observes, belong almost exclusively to rappers.

Because of the publishing delay, some parts of Blood Horses feel rather dated. The events of 11 September 2001 are a pressing and recent concern. All modern thoroughbreds are descendants of three Arabian studs and Iraq, we are told, is “the ancestral home of the Arabian horse”. We learn that a horse auction was suspended in the days after the attacks on the World Trade Center but only after a Saudi prince had bought several expensive yearlings, to general Kentuckian muttering.

Sullivan’s pop-cultural references can also feel slightly stale and the book is populated by celebrities many of whom have returned to obscurity. Who but the most devoted fan now remembers ’N Sync’s Joey Fatone or the Backstreet Boys’ Kevin Richardson?

It is a shame, therefore, that British readers have been slightly spoiled by encountering Pulphead first, because although Blood Horses is a meaty book, it does contain the odd unclassifiable lump. Parts of it feel past their sell-by date and the threads of Sullivan’s larger story don’t always come together. Not quite a thoroughbred, then, but Blood Horses does contain much of what makes his later essays so compelling.

The "Triple Crown" winner Secretariat, June 1973. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era