Horse Heaven
by Jane Smiley
Knopf, 561 pages

The charged world of horseracing, the subject of Jane Smiley's satirical new novel, may be the last place you'd expect to find a pithy, incisive description of a Christian's faith walk.

But there it is, in the mouth of Buddy Crawford, a successful but brutal horsetrainer, who gets born again early on in "Horse Heaven": "When the Lord came into me," Buddy tells his wife, "it was such a good feeling, I thought, Well, I can do anything because of this feeling, but there was all this stuff to do and to think about, and I don't remember the feeling all that well."

Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield recently described Buddy's moment of post-conversion letdown thus: "After the ecstasy comes the laundry."

Jesus, Buddy realizes, would require him to treat his horses decently--no more brutal training that has made him famous and infamous. "Jesus did not allow you to run a two-year-old horse whose growth plates hadn't closed. Jesus didn't allow you to run an unfit horse. Jesus didn't allow any toegrabs or turndowns. Jesus didn't allow you even to think about buzzing the horse's neck with a hot electrical device to remind him that he hadn't arrived at the finish line yet. What Jesus liked, Buddy discovered, was a fair race."

Buddy fails the test--he eventually chooses winning over walking with the Lord. Besides, he figures he can always re-convert if things slow down at the racetrack: "The...thing about Jesus, according to everyone, was you always had another chance with him. And you didn't always have another chance for the Breeders' Cup."

But if Buddy fails as a Christian, "Horse Heaven" succeeds wonderfully as a novel. Readers who didn't already number Smiley among our greatest living novelists will have to reconsider after reading "Horse Heaven," Smiley's seventh novel (and her second set in stables, after 1993's "Barn Blind"). Smiley is one of the few writers who can pull off deeply probing family dramas like "At Paradise Gate," and her Pulitzer-prize winning "A Thousand Acres," without losing her touch for humor, found here and in her 1996 comedy of academic manners, "Moo."

"Horse Heaven" is like a Breughel painting: she captures the entire dizzyingly hectic world in a single colorful community, here the incestuous club of horseracing enthusiasts. To the requisite horsey Maryland snobs Smiley adds Tiffany Morse, a former Wal-Mart clerk whose rap-star boyfriend buys her a horse; Krista Magnelli, a new mother who has inherited her grandfather's studfarm and Alexander P. Maybrick, a wealthy industrialist and recovering alcoholic who wants nothing more (or less) than to win the Breeder's Cup.

The sun rises and sets by horses for all these characters--all but Elizabeth Zada, a menopausal New-Age guru who can communicate with horses but who spends most of her time churning out the three-volume "Spiritual Housework: An Astrolabe for the Next Millennium," which she sells for six-figures.

Elizabeth is also sleeping with a Berkeley Futurism professor half her age, sex being an integral part of Elizabeth's spiritual journey. Early on she explains that during orgasm, "spiritual energy shoots upward toward the Godhead" through "an energy space" at the top of a woman's head. "Personally," she explains, "I always think of a baby's fontanel. You want the fontanel back. It closes over in the first year as the baby separates from the Godhead, but later on, through meditation, you open it."

But Elizabeth is largely on hand as a comic foil for Buddy, who reaches for something beyond, only to return to the track. The title, indeed, is appropriate--it recalls Jesus words in Luke 12:33-34: "Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Jane Smiley's latest novel is full of people whose heart--and heaven--is at the racetrack.

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