In Horse Heaven

by Christopher Moore

Three simple words placed Jane Smiley's latest novel under starter's orders.

The Pulitzer-Prize winning author (A Thousand Acres, The Age of Grief) was driving down a Californian road when she heard a commentator on the car radio refer to "spit the bit." For the novelist who happens to be an enthusiastic horse owner, the terse phrase was totally irresistible.

It was at that precise moment that Horse Heaven was born in Jane Smiley's mind.

"I realised that there was a whole wonderful language to horse racing that was a novelist's treasure. I was already involved with horses and interested in horse breeding, so the next step was to get out onto the track. Once I did that, I realised that this place is a storyteller's paradise."

Her choice of subject was also confirmed by her personal acquaintance with a retired race horse she had brought four years earlier.

"I became fascinated by this animal's peripatetic life. It seemed to have had a very worldly career, travelling to places I hadn't even visited. He was an elegant cosmopolitan creature," she said shortly before leaving for a New Zealand tour which will include the Books and Beyond Festival in Christchurch.

At 51, Jane Smiley has placed her imprint on a series of eight novels. She won the 1992 Pulitzer for her study of a corrupt patriarchal society in A Thousand Acres. In The all-true travels and adventures of Lidie Newton, she explored the inner and outer landscapes of mid-19th century America through the eyes of a gawky young Kansas widow.

Jane Smiley's books have often reflected the paradoxes and tensions of American society with its sense of entitlement and restless energy fueled by ideology rather than ethics.

"The motivating force behind all American history has always been The Constitution which provided an ideological rationale to the country and its society," she says.

Lidie Newton also involved one of the leitmotivs of American literature, slavery. Every American writer, Smiley believes, must confront the peculiar institution and its impact on American society from the 18th to 2ist century. Her own family roots encompass abolitionists and slave owners. The familial tensions implanted themselves in her mind and writing which has won her such wide acclaim.

"Winning the Pulitzer didn't make any great difference to my writing, although getting a Pultizer is reputed to transform a writer from a wannabe to a has-been.

"Once you win, you've become established and Establishment. You are no longer cool," Smiley says.

It is an ironic comment given that she was inducted into that great literary pantheon, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, on the eve of her departure for New Zealand.

At home in the Carmel Valley, she considers her rather brilliant literary career which has taken her from Vassar College to critical acclaim as one of the leading members of a new generation of American writers. She sounds remarkably relaxed about all the brouhaha.

She is someone who constantly writes from first-hand observations of the world and its people rather than from inner-reflection ... "it's right that you write what you see."

Horse Heaven plunges into the world of horse racing - a world filled with colour, folly, greed and courage.

"This was a book which didn't require as much research. I visited the track and had tremendous fun eating hot dogs and laying the occasional bet. Huge fun. Racing is very individualistic. It is never one side against another but always individuals winning or losing. There are so many chances to try and the winner is almost always different every time ... it is a real kaleidoscope of winning and losing," she says.

"At the track I saw - and later wrote about - individuals who entertained a constant feeling that they were about to corner the big score."

Smiley writes at what could be described as a steady canter - 1000 words each day composed during a morning's writing.

"A book sits at the back of my head all the time. Writing novels can be very relaxing when you can think about the same thing every day instead of starting and finishing a lot of different things."

She has now started drafting a new book - a fictionalised study of real estate dealing and tax fraud during the Regan era.

"I guess that I love to write about chicanery and human nature. I'm constantly fascinated by how adults try to get away with something when all the time they know that they won't escape. It's like watching a child trying to fool an adult."

Horse Heaven, by Jane Smiley. Penguin Books. Paperback. $29.95

Review -- Horse Heaven