Alyson Hagy, Keeneland (Simon and Schuster, 2000)
[originally posted 15Feb2001]
“Finally,” one reviewer raves, “a female character with backbone!” No arguments from this section. In a world of neuroses, obsessions, and “diseases” manufactured by the self-help market in order to sell products—all of which seem to be exaggerated in modern literary heroines—it’s nice to find a main character of the feminine persuasion who doesn’t give a damn about any of it. Kerry is a heroine with traits we don’t often see in heroines; confused but willing to muddle through, defensive, not angry at the world but not in love with it, either. In short, she’s allowed to be a human being, with all the complexity that involves, rather than a cardboard cutout who fits the easy definitions of self-help books (most of which are more fictional than this).
One character, however, does not a book make (in most cases, anyway; I’m sure Jean-Paul Sartre would take exception to that statement). Hagy places her heroine in the opening days of Keeneland’s spring meet, newly returned from a stint in New York and a bad separation from her husband. She has no friends per se, but enough acquaintances to get along, making enough money to subsist, at least. But like all communities, it’s impossible to stay connected to your former life without it catching up with you, and complications ensue just as things start settling down.
My main problem with the book, in fact my only problem with it, is that Hagy attempted to write to the non-horse crowd by keeping some of the book filled with horse terms while leaving them out of others; in many cases, it seems she took exactly the wrong turn in deciding what to leave in and what to take out. In most cases, the decisions were understandable, even if they could have been better; I realize someone who’s spent a good portion of their lives around Keeneland isn’t likely to notice many of the small details, but it’s the details that make Keeneland one of America’s finest racetracks. Also, I’d expect someone who exercises horses in the mornings to take a little more note of the actual racing that’s going on, rather than have it mentioned a few times as background noise. It’s possible to write lovingly about the sport and its environs while still creating a book that’s not specifically about horse racing; Bill Barich showed the world that twenty years ago with his brilliant book Laughing in the Hills. Because of this, there were times when the book left me wanting to know more about what was going on around Kerry. After all, it doesn’t matter how absorbed you are in your problems, you can’t be around a horse race without getting caught up in it.
The book’s good points certainly outweigh the bad ones, and it’s worth seeking out. ***
[ed. note 2013: for those of you who don’t get the subtitle, Keeneland was the last American racetrack without an announcer until they hired Kurt Becker, who called his first race at Keeneland on April 4, 1997. They must have liked him, because as of this writing, he’s still there.]