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The Ohio River runs through C. E. Morgan’s second novel, THE SPORT OF KINGS (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27). It’s a “hungry current,” a “sucking current,” a “swamping weight” whose black surface moonlight cannot pierce. It cleaves the green, fertile karst of Kentucky and the choking industrial cities of the North, a time-made path, wending through time. To swim across it, a runaway slave named Scipio kicks a drowning stranger in her pregnant belly rather than be dragged to death fathoms below. A hundred and fifty years later, toward the end of the twentieth century, Scipio’s great-great-great-great-grandson Allmon Shaughnessy sits at the riverbank and peers over at “the staunch antebellum houses glowing in the coming evening.” Allmon’s preacher grandfather warns him against crossing over, but warnings are beckonings, and history swallows its tail. Fatherless, impoverished, hardened by a stint at the state penitentiary, and hungry as the current, Allmon takes a job as a groom on the old Forge plantation, unaware that he has returned to the very family Scipio fled. That name, Forge — oh! Too many meanings to spell them all out here. Suffice it to say that rich, racist Henry and his withdrawn daughter, Henrietta, are queer birds gone mad for horses. They’re inbreeding Secretariat’s kin in a quest for genetic purity and the Triple Crown, because while The Sport of Kings is prodigious, magisterial, erudite, and aureate, it is never, ever off message.

Equal parts earnest social novel and multigenerational American melodrama, the book opens in the 1950s with young Henry under the thumb of his tyrannical father, a gentleman corn farmer who ties the boy to the old slave whipping post when he’s bad. Henry’s mother is loving and weak, the first of three women in the book who are unable to protect their children from the abuses of the world. What follows is a more or less straight downward trajectory for everyone involved, but the prose unfurls in sonorous digressions, unusual breaks in perspective and shifts of voice, and evocations of places as diverse as the cellblock and the breeding shed. Morgan, who is from Kentucky, lushly describes its landscapes. “Is all this too purple, too florid?” she asks at the end of one throbbing sequence. “Is more too much — the world and the words?” It was, at times, for me.

The Sport of Kings traces today’s socioeconomic injustices to nineteenth-century crimes, and the book is itself a curious mélange of nineteenth-century literary legacies. Morgan foregrounds the mighty gears of her machinery, proudly drawing attention to the book as a Novel with a capital N; she has no compunction about killing off a woman in childbirth or conjuring up a deus ex machina. The plot ultimately buckles under the weight, like Henry’s prized filly — bighearted, fat-assed Hellsmouth, who fractures her leg in the Laurel Futurity Stakes. A moral tale becomes a sentimental one. Did Morgan have to gild Henry’s lily-white villainy by making her inbreeding zealot commit actual incest? She can’t stick the landing, either. What might have been a delirious and haunting Pyrrhic victory, a spectacular scorched-earth finish, is undone with a lame epilogue.

The novel form arcs toward death, measuring consequences in lifetimes and generations. Some novels emphasize chance, or imagine humans as captive to destiny; others attend to problems of consciousness or moments of choice. But all make claims about cause — why lives turn out the way they do. These enduring preoccupations are posed explicitly by Morgan’s characters: Who am I? How is my life bound up with other lives? Is it possible to change my course? To that last question, Morgan offers a resounding “no.” For while she shares George Eliot’s fervor for connecting every detail of the plot, she is as dedicated as Zola to the fatedness of inheritance and the determining power of temperament and environment; with few exceptions, her characters are less responsible agents than they are the embodied forces of history and genealogy.

What was it that other Southern writer said? Something about the past? In The Sport of Kings, the past isn’t dead or undead — it’s an epitaph for the living. Henry becomes his own personal nightmare: his father. Henrietta wretchedly concludes: “You could never escape the category of your birth.” Allmon wears his circumstances like chains, living out a script “written in black blood on white paper” until a magical jockey named Reuben Bedford Walker III, an “imp, raconteur, pissant, tricky truculent slick,” a black man who knows the “cant of the Kaintuckee,” admonishes him: “Learn your history! . . . Your only choice was no choice!”

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