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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1825

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)...

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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 realize she is unhappy with her marriage and with herself, but this affair ends when Winterson’s brutality to her Jack Russell terrier Eileen makes Rosalind see him in a new light. Smiley uses Winterson’s encounter with Eileen to suggest that Eileen, like the other animals in the novel, has a preternatural sensitivity that allows her to discern someone’s true colors. The end of her affair with Winterson allows readers to realize that Rosalind’s romantic imbroglio with him is less important than her inner journey, which allows her to see herself and her life in a new way. She seems to discover psychic powers and to develop a relationship to the world that is both erotic and mystical. An important racing victory of the Maybricks’ horse Limitless coincides with Rosalind’s own psychic achievements, which allow her to repair her marriage and achieve a sense of selfhood hitherto denied her.

Limitless is one of the book’s two victorious horses. The other is Residual, who is connected to the story of Buddy Crawford. It is Crawford’s story that indicates a darker side to horse racing, in which horses are abused and exploited for personal gain. A seasoned horse trainer, Buddy has recently become a born-again Christian, but at the same time he manages to continue a level of corruption that has brought him to his present level of success. In spite of the fact the he knowingly drugs his horse Residual to ensure her victory, Buddy continues to affirm his religious beliefs, and despite this hypocrisy, fortune inexplicably smiles on him. Buddy manages to continue to sustain his religious beliefs and his corrupt racing practices while forestalling for the time being any day of reckoning.

As with the story of Buddy, the remaining important stories in this novel concern not owners but their trainers. The story of the trainers Joy Gorham and Farley Jones allows Smiley another opportunity to explore spiritual issues. Farley Jones, who uses the Tibetan Book of Thoroughbred Training as his guidebook, is a mystical thinker whose romance with the ironically named Joy Gorham moves her life in new spiritual directions. Joy, who is lonely and depressed, is slowly drawn into a new way of thinking and feeling by Farley and by her friendship with the strange, psychic “animal communicator” Elizabeth Zada.

Like Joy, the horse trainer Deirdre Donohue also finds new love and friendship during the course of this novel. After feeling as if she is lost in a dark wood with no clear path ahead, Deirdre eventually finds a fulfilling friendship with Tiffany Morse, a beautiful black woman who began as a checker at a Wal-Mart and, by a combination of drive and luck, has ended up in the horse-racing world as a successful owner. Another very positive thread of this tangled plot involves the travails of the motherly horse breeder Krista Magnelli, whose involvement in the birth of horses and in her own motherhood demonstrates the presence of an ongoing life-force.

Interestingly, while the novel revolves around the culture of the racetrack, and while the horses run or prepare for quite a number of races, there is little interest in the phenomenon of gambling. Only one narrative line features the plight of a small-time gambler known only as Leo, whose delusive anticipation of the “big win” teaches his son Jesse a valuable lesson about pipe dreams and false hope.

The title of Horse Heaven very effectively provides an encompassing interpretive frame for all that is within it. The title suggests an escape into another world, a kind of paradise in which humans and horses are deeply connected. In addition, the title prepares readers for the myriad spiritual references and mystical experiences that weave their way into the novel’s various plot lines. In a way that is very characteristic of this inclusive novel, Smiley manages to touch on such varied religious perspectives as Alcoholics Anonymous, evangelical Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism, and New Age philosophy. In addition, there are a near-death experience, mysterious examples of good luck or bad karma, visionary dreams, and extraordinary twists of fate. The novel’s final episode features an example of mysterious good luck when the sensitive young lover of horses, Audrey Schmidt, ends up with the orphaned filly Froney’s Sis, whose name has been changed to Chantilly:

There she was, across the aisle, looking at her, her beautiful gray mare from California, Chantilly. Such a neat, trim little mare, so quick and bright. Audrey stood in the doorway, transfixed with love, and the mare gave a deep, affectionate nicker.

The deep current of affection possible between human and horse suggested in these lines also evokes a sense of a homecoming that is mysteriously fulfilling. In an equally mysterious way, Audrey and Chantilly seem to become like mother and daughter, and their deep communion ends the story on a happy note.

While the love of horses is the foundation of this novel, Smiley suggests that her depiction of the world of horses and their owners can also be interpreted symbolically. For instance, one of her characters suggests that the world of the racetrack is in reality a sanguine metaphor for capitalism. The novel can also be viewed as a way to demonstrate a rather upbeat, theosophical philosophy in which there are few truly unhappy endings.

Horse Heaven is a far cry from Smiley’s dark, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres, whose bitter pessimism Smiley has repudiated. In contrast, Horse Heaven is a light, effervescent novel that invites readers into a circle of wealthy families of a variety of stripes, including those with “old California money” and those with new windfalls deriving from success in the world of pop music. Smiley’s enthusiasm for this world, its denizens, and its somewhat insulated and self-serving New Age philosophy at times comes dangerously close to the shallow, escapist fantasies provided by popular romantic authors such as Jackie Collins or Judith Krantz, and thereby jeopardizes Smiley’s reputation as an author of serious literary fiction. Nevertheless, this novel remains a tour de force, and, as her occasional references to the great medieval Italian religious poet Dante suggest, her freestyle weaving of plot and character is meant to explore the idea that life is, at its heart, a joyous, divine comedy.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (February 15, 2000): 1053.

Library Journal 125 (Mach 15, 2000): 130.

The New York Times Book Review 105 (April 2, 2000): 14.

Newsweek 135 (April 17, 2000): 68.

Time 155 (April 10, 2000): 131.

The Wall Street Journal, April 14, 2000, p. W11.

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