(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Jane Smiley is the author of ten works of fiction, including A Thousand Acres (1991), which won the Pulitzer Prize. Her novel Horse Heavencontinues her interest in contemporary subcultures—microcosms whose comedies and tragedies throw light on the workings of the larger world. Previously, for instance, her novel Moo (1995) examined the world of the contemporary American university, while in Horse HeavenSmiley turns to the subculture of those who raise and race horses. This is a very big, busy, fluid novel that is almost chaotic in terms of its structure. However, while the numerous vignettes in the novel seem to jumble together incoherently like horses bunched together in the middle of a race, by the end it appears that every character has an outcome that represents either the vagaries of luck or, possibly, his or her own unique fate. So, although the topic of this novel is the world of racehorses, in a larger sense Horse Heaven can be said to be a meditation on the workings of either chance or destiny.

Smiley’s cast of characters includes forty-nine individuals, including animals. The range of her characters extends from a former member of the Chinese Red Guard to a small-time gambler who gets in trouble with the mob, to a successful black rap singer, to a peer of the realm, to a corrupt horse trainer who also happens to be a born-again Christian, to an eleven-year-old girl who is mad for horses.

The multitude of characters in this novel suggests that Smiley does not really want readers to concentrate on individuals so much as an entire way of life. Her subject is less the psychology of the individual than the culture of the racetrack, which includes owners, breeders, trainers, groomers, and gamblers. Encompassing both Europe and America, it is an ever-changing world that often seems to be on the verge of unraveling. As a reflection of this world, the novel itself is also not highly centralized; there is no central narrative thread, and instead the plot moves in an open and unpredictable way, depicting a kaleidoscope of patterns and possibilities. Some characters are introduced only to fade into obscurity after their brief moment in the sun; other characters emerge as major figures. In any case, all the characters appear to be working out their lives within the culture of the racetrack.

A major element in this culture is the horses themselves, who in this novel are as developed and as important as the human characters. It is this aspect of the novel that is its most unusual and remarkable feature, since these horses are presented not as simply dumb animals but as creatures with minds, hearts, and spirits of their own. The likable horse named Justa Bob, for instance, demonstrates a whimsical sense of humor. Another important horse in the novel, named Mr. T, appears to be psychic. A horse named Froney’s Sis is a vulnerable creature who has never gotten over the loss of her mother, while Limitless is a horse who is described as a genius. Like human beings, all the horses in this novel have inner lives and feelings, and also seem preternaturally attuned to the human beings around them. The presentation of the horses as powerful entities is responsible for a certain mystical atmosphere in this novel. The strong natural presence of the horses indicates not only vitality but also a mysteriousness that suggests a supernatural dimension and something magical working itself out in the lives of humans and horses alike. In addition, the intimate connection between horse and human means that the fortunes of the racehorses are inevitably intertwined with the fates of a number of different characters in the novel.

Although this novel is crowded with a plethora of characters and situations, the character who emerges as its central figure is Rosalind Maybrick, the wife of wealthy industrialist and racehorse owner Al Maybrick. At the beginning of the novel she is something of a lost soul, contenting herself with the acquisition of exquisite consumer items and works of art, as befits the wife of a wealthy man. Realizing her life has become shallow and meaningless, Rosalind undergoes an erotic awakening with horse trainer Dick Winterson, an affair that makes her realize she has been sleepwalking through her life. However, although Dick Winterson is an attractive and virile man, it appears that his proximity to the life-force of the horses is also a factor in Rosalind’s attraction to him. Winterson makes Rosalind...

(The entire section is 1825 words.)