Books Two tales: One's an embarrassment of riches, but the other is just an embarrassment

May 28, 2000

Horse Heaven
By Jane Smiley
Alfred A. Knopf, $26

Racing fans come in two breeds: those who wonder what goes on in
a horse's noggin and those who wonder about nothing but the
numbers on the tote board. To the latter this novel by Smiley,
Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Thousand Acres, will read like
a preposterous soap opera. But everyone else will find her book
very much like racing itself: a profound drama of man and beast,
galloping from hilarity to tragedy and back in less time than it
takes a thoroughbred to reach the clubhouse turn.

Horse Heaven is a masterly work so long and complicated that a
list of 49 characters is provided at the outset to help readers
remember who's who. It's a peculiar work, too--as peculiar as any
you are likely to read. One bettor successfully handicaps races
by communicating telepathically with a gelding; another almost
goes to pieces when he "jinxes" himself by looking at a nun on
the way to the track. An enterprising veterinarian constructs an
artificial horse vagina for office practice with building
supplies from Home Depot. A slumping trainer spends as much as 20
minutes a day watching a pig gorge itself on horse offal.

Most peculiar of all is Smiley's apparent conviction that she
understands what it's like to be a horse. The equine characters
in Horse Heaven are every bit as complex and interesting as the
human ones, and they possess a kind of intelligence and capacity
for love that the author suggests we two-legged creatures ought
to respect more than we do. Perhaps she's right. But even if
she's not, Horse Heaven is a hell of a ride--particularly for
those who believe that there's more to racing than placing bets.

The Putt at the End of The World
By Lee K. Abbott, Dave Barry, Richard Bausch, James Crumley,
James W. Hall, Tami Hoag, Tim O'Brien, Ridley Pearson and Les
Standiford
Warner Books, $23.95

It's commonly said that golf can spoil a good walk, so it's not
surprising that it can spoil a good writer, too. But what a shock
to discover that it can sour the work of nine writers, including
best-selling humorist Barry and National Book Award winner
O'Brien. The bad idea was for nine golf-loving authors to
collaborate on an ostensibly humorous novel, each writing a
chapter and then passing the book on to the next. The result is a
pointless morass of unfunny jokes about putts and farts, sex
scenes that no one but Beavis and Butt-head could find amusing
and a host of toothless parodies that are embarrassing to their
creators. It's a grim experience to read an entire comic novel
without once chuckling. Don't try. Go for a good walk instead.

COLOR PHOTO: ALFRED A. KNOPF COLOR PHOTO: WARNER BOOKS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)