Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer winner
Photo: Randi Baird, photographer / Randi Baird
The title of Geraldine Brooks’ new novel, “Horse,” alludes to Lexington: the true and extraordinary late 19th-century Kentucky bay stallion who drives its plot. The subtext, if not the subtitle, is “Race”. Not for the contests Lexington won, though these are recreated in detail for the sports and society pages, but for the book’s confrontation of black-white relations over two centuries.
Precious heirlooms can disappear, is the underlying message – for years the skeleton of this famous thoroughbred languished in the Smithsonian, pushed into an attic and branded only equus caballus – even as the barbarians linger .
A great practitioner of historical fiction and adventurous journalism, Brooks has already visited the rocky terrain of the breed. Her novel “March” (2005) explored the life of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” mostly absent father, a Union Army chaplain during the Civil War. In The New York Times, Brooks’ accomplished contemporary, Thomas Mallon (a white man), criticized her (a white woman), for filling this book with a number of “slave saints and scholars” in roles of support, calling the result “treacherous and embarrassing. Others disagreed, and “March” won a Pulitzer Prize.
This time, after novels about Judaism, the first Harvard-educated Native American, and biblical King David, Brooks focuses on two young black men, giving them layered journeys and complicated inner lives (in an afterword, she thanks among others her son Bizu, whom she and her late husband, author Tony Horwitz, adopted from Ethiopia, to gain insight into the modern black experience).
The book opens with Theo, an art history doctoral student in Georgetown who pulls a painting of Lexington from the trash of a hostile neighbor in 2019. Before long, the action jumps back to 1850 and Jarret, a skilled groom whose slave father had purchased his own freedom but could not afford his son’s.
Shank’s character was inspired by a fleeting reference in an old issue of Harper’s Magazine, informed by Brooks’ research into enslaved horse trainers, who had – tenuously – more authority and status on the grass than their counterparts in the fields. His progress in the novel is propelled by disturbing transfers of ownership: he comes of age under the name of “Warfield’s Jarret”; is empowered and jeopardized as “Ten Broeck’s Shank”; and so on, by emancipation. Tenderly devoted to the prize-winning horse first known as Darley, he also tangles warily with Cassius Marcellus Clay, the brash, womanizing abolitionist and one of Clay’s daughters, Mary Barr. Mary always seems to be crawling toward Jarret in an organza dress: well-meaning, with an interest that borders on romantic, but endangering him by her mere presence.
Part of Brooks’ project, developed after the murder of George Floyd, is to show that Theo, despite 21st century autonomy and a privileged background – he is the son of diplomats, attended Yale and Oxford and has what a friend calls it a “Lord Fauntleroy accent”. – can never really relax because of his skin color. (To which some readers may respond, “Duh?”) His former polo teammates called him Poo, Sooty and worse. His neighbor flinches when he tries to help her with a shopping cart – “just a white woman, a white woman”, he thinks, stifling his anger. And he first meets his new lover, Jess, when she thinks he’s stealing her expensive bike. Remarking (speaking of molasses) that Theo’s eyes are “the color and shine of maple syrup”, Jess then lambastes herself for “what hadn’t been micro-aggression but blatant racism”.
Their affair, which begins tentatively and then takes a harsh, melodramatic turn, feels like a skeletal mount, simply a place where their professional lives can intersect. Here, Brooks has done considerable homework and deserves, in my opinion, a top rating. Jess runs a squeam-free osteology prep lab, cleaning animal carcasses with dermestid beetles; and retrieves Lexington from the attic of the Natural History Museum. Theo is inspired to pursue a new dissertation topic after recovering the equestrian painting, by a minor equestrian artist named Thomas J. Scott (who also intermittently picks up the narrative and embarks, in Brooks’ imagination, on a interracial gay affair in New Orleans).
Brooks’ chronological and interdisciplinary leaps are exciting and generally seamless, though there can be a lot of exposition in the dialogue. With the all-access passport granted by historical fiction, she even poses audaciously, if perhaps a little superfluously, in Jackson Pollock’s circle, just before the artist died while driving drunk with his mistress.
By Geraldine Brooks.
401 pages. Viking. $28.
But it’s really a book about the power and pain of words, not pictures: the bad ones said Jess, fearing insensitivity; the “blinking cursor, tapping like an impatient finger” that Theo and all writers face; the archaics that Brooks invokes for plausibility, such as “jimberjawed” and “clerestory”; those whom Jarret does not dare to speak. “Words could be traps,” he thinks. “The less you have there, the less they could trap you.” (Or as Aaron Burr put it in “Hamilton”: “Talk less. Smile more.”) And those beloved beasts can’t talk.
Call it a prolonged case of post-“Watership Down” stress disorder, but most animal-themed books make me want to run like hell; there is a good chance that the creatures will suffer or die at the hands of aggressors or predators. In “Horse”, however, Lexington is ennobled by art and science, and returns from obscurity to attain the lofty status of metaphor. It is us humans who continue to struggle.