New York: G.P. Putnam’s Press, 2015. 310 pages. $26.95.
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Novels about playing the horses tend to dwell, these days, in the same shabby realm as the game itself. “The Sport of Kings” has long lost the whiff of aristocracy, outside of the Derby, the Belmont, and the Preakness, and the author best known for working the track would be a crime novelist: Dick Francis, out of England. Here in the States, too, the most celebrated horserace fiction deals in the shady and seedy. An exception would be the Pulitzer winner Jane Smiley, whose Horse Heaven considered the lofty milieu of thoroughbred ranchers—but the 1999 novel may be her least appreciated. Come 2013, in an essay for The Cambridge Companion to Horseracing, Smiley herself concluded: “American racing fiction . . . sees evil as pervasive, . . . in the very nature of horse racing.”
Case in point, Alyson Hagy’s Keeneland, published the same year as Horse Heaven. Far more concerned with grunt work and chicanery than Smiley’s novel, Keeneland continues to garner enthusiastic readers, to judge from a book-site like Goodreads. More recently, in 2010, Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule took home the National Book Award for a story rife with skullduggery. Gordon didn’t just dope the animals, she drugged her heroine and left her prey to a gambler. Indeed, half a century earlier, John Hawkes’ The Lime Twig dramatized even worse wickedness; though the setting was England, Lime Twig may rank as the great American horse race novel.
In that ranking, it’s too early to assign a place for Watch Me Go, the new novel from Mark Wisniewski. Still, among such precedents, this work fits none too shabbily—or rather, just shabbily enough. Wisniewski sifts the scum, unflinching. He shies neither from the battered dreams of a grandstander nor from the stench of a bush-league stable. Then too he brings off an intriguing shift of venue, since Hagy and Gordon set their dramas in the downtrodden South, whereas Watch Me Go takes place along the Finger Lakes of upstate New York. In this day and age, the setting reminds us, the Rust Belt harbors as much dirt as old Dixie. So too, superficial differences between the two narrators fall away, revealing links of tragedy and ill-use. The crimes these two speak of, though tricky to unravel, prove the stuff of human weakness anywhere. As one of them puts it: at this level of the racing game, and in this neck of the woods, “gambling and welshing and debt and vengeful violence have long, long been a way of life.”
In short, the novel offers classic satisfactions, and it’s no surprise to learn that Wisniewski has been at this a while. His work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize and appeared in Best American Short Stories, and the latter story, an early version of an episode in Watch Me Go, was selected by Salman Rushdie. Wisniewski also has two previous novels on smaller presses, and several years ago, as the final judge for a contest, I recommended his manuscript for publication. This was Show Up, Look Good (2011), a picaresque about a young woman’s rocky initiation to Manhattan life. There Wisniewski demonstrated at least two of the gifts on display this time out; namely, a sharp eye for human iniquity and a sensitive hand for locating hidden hurts. Watch Me Go, however, adds terrific dramatic control: what Rushdie terms, in a blurb, “pure, muscular storytelling.”
Now, story amounts to more than plot, and even in a novel of horse racing, the extra impact is measured in terms of character. Wisniewski’s people include touching secondary figures, in particular a tragic young man who’d rather raise horses than risk them in the races. Still, his success depends finally on his two narrators, whose perspectives alternate chapter by chapter.
The first is Douglas “Deesh” Sharp, African-American and formerly a rising star of Bronx basketball. Now well past his glory days, he hopes above all that he might yet become a true father to his illegitimate teenage son—something Deesh never had himself. As Watch Me Go opens, however, it’s bad to worse. Marginally employed as a junkman, this narrator sits in a holding cell. It seems the death penalty is on the table, and his public defender doesn’t hold out much hope for his not-guilty plea. The exact charges against Deesh remain unclear for some time, but from the first we get the man. Hardened and sharpened by the streets, he’s also smart enough to grasp how that background keeps him at a loss: “I realize that, yet again, Bronx-style poverty is forcing me to sell myself out. I’ve done this so often that it feels almost natural.”
Deesh has the sensitivity to make the connection to a similar “claim” from his former lover Madalynn, the mother of his child: “her claim . . . that there was only one way couples in poverty stayed true: awareness of need nursed by constant mutual asking.” The couple feels that their love has been degraded to mere shared desperation, and that desperation in turn drives the junkman’s disastrous choices, implicating him eventually in three murders. Thus Watch Me Go probes well beneath the bloody smears on its surface. No mere crime story would delineate so vividly the fraying net of delusion spun by those who’ve found the American cornucopia picked clean.
The novel’s second narrator, Jan Price, puts it with country plainness in her first turn at storytelling. “If you ever wonder why people do twisted things,” she declares, “just remember that, more often than not, it comes down to someone losing or needing or otherwise wanting money.” Jan, a white Kentucky girl of twenty-two, was born to be one of those who “lived and breathed horse racing.” In that same first chapter, she reveals that she’s the daughter of a legendary jockey who committed a kind of slow suicide, after a fall on the track left him unable to ride. In other words, like Deesh, Jan grew up without a father. Like him, too, she’s known little but scraping to get by and struggling after dreams still largely inchoate. Indeed, she knows something about the man being held for multiple murders even before she signs his visitor list (his first reaction: “Who the hell is this?”). Jan knows so much about one of killings, she might get Deesh sprung for all three.
So these widely divergent characters reveal how their stories are twinned. The biplay provides its own entertainment, a pair of ventriloquist acts. Neither voice ever carries on overlong or loses, for more than a flat sentence or two, the tang of the colloquial. Granted, such rare missteps also allow a reader to notice a certain implausibility about the whole setup. The entire novel pretends to unfold over the course of a single visit to the holding cell, Jan’s first; on those rare occasions when some phrase or detail rings false, that pretense falters.
No more than a phrase or detail, though, as Wisniewski casts three sorts of story-spells at once: Jan’s coming of age, Deesh’s coming to terms, and their stories coming together. Better yet, while Wisniewski’s given us more than a crime novel, he maintains the tight temporal focus of a good noir. He doesn’t allow either narrator to ruminate much on the far past. The wannabe-jockey looks back no more than a month to her arrival upstate, and the wishes-he-weren’t-a-junkman broods on the gunplay and hairpin turns of the last few days; and so a reader often feels suspended in that delicious space between not wanting to miss anything and yearning to flip ahead to know the outcome. Craftsmanship like that, as it happens, also distinguished Jaimy Gordon’s Misrule; Gordon too showed off fresh story skills when she wrote about the races. Ultimately, though, it’s Wisniewski’s pervading compassion, his understanding of hardship, which places Watch Me Go on the topmost shelf of horse racing novels.