on C. E. Morgan’s ‘THE SPORT OF KINGS’

9780374281083Michael LaPointe at the Times Literary Supplement:

One literary stereotype associates long, sprawling, ambitious novels with male writers. The notion might have crystallized with the conspicuously masculine Americans of the post-war period – Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, William Styron, Philip Roth – who seemed to produce imposing tomes as self-conscious statements of seriousness. As Mailer declared inAdvertisements for Myself (1959), he would “try to hit the longest ball ever to go up into the accelerated hurricane air of our American letters”. The gender lines were barely coded: so-called “major” writers produced robust, shadow-casting books, while “minor” ones contented themselves with subjects more deserving of slender treatment. In this century, however, the finest “major” novels have more often than not been written by women. Zadie Smith, Donna Tartt, Eleanor Catton, Meg Wolitzer and Elena Ferrante are among those hitting the long balls in contemporary fiction, and with The Sport of Kings, a world-encompassing colossus second novel (All the Livingwas published in 2009), C. E. Morgan has joined their ranks.

Born into a distinguished farming family, “Kentuckians first and Virginians second and Christians third”, Henry Forge is thrust into the tumultuous mid-twentieth century, when Brown v. Board of Education is uprooting the segregated basis of Southern society. His father, John Henry, is possessed of a virulent desire to preserve tradition, and Morgan provides no softening, nostalgic touches to his depiction; he is the Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman, not To Kill a Mockingbird. A single page can range over the breadth of John Henry’s bigotry: “The core of femininity is a softness of resolve and mind; reason is not their strong suit . . . [but] I wouldn’t say that they’re naturally intellectually inferior, as the Negroes are”. When an African American servant is caught in an adulterous relationship with John Henry’s wife, he has occasion to back his words with deeds, and this blood guilt will haunt Henry Forge’s life long after his father is dead.

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