Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son, by John Jeremiah Sullivan, Yellow Jersey, RRP£12.99, 264 pages
“You can go mad noticing them,” writes John Jeremiah Sullivan of the number of horse metaphors in the English language. High horses, gift horses, horses for courses, flogging a dead horse – the list goes on. “A Martian, equipped only with time and a dictionary, could reconstruct the history of the human race by looking for these little proliferation points of vocabulary.”
Blood Horses, Sullivan’s first book, was published in the US in 2004 but is only now coming out in the UK. This follows the success of Pulphead (2012), a collection of essays taking in pretty much everything you never thought you’d want to read about (a Christian rock festival, for example) and turning it into something exhilarating.
Part canter through the representation of horses in western art and science, part gallop through equine history, literature and mythology, Blood Horses also tells the story of Sullivan’s relationship with his father, Mike, a sports journalist who worked at local newspapers in the US while he smoked and drank himself to an early death.
After a sextuple bypass operation in 2000 from which he would never fully recover, Mike tells his son about watching Secretariat win the Kentucky Derby in 1973. It was, the father said, “just beauty, you know ... He was starting in last place, which he tended to do ... And all of a sudden there was this ... disruption in the corner of your eye, in your peripheral vision. And then before you could make out what it was, here Secretariat came.”
This memory struck Sullivan as somehow the key to his father’s life. He spent the next two years visiting racetracks across the country, hoping to witness a similar spectacle, and reading all he could about horses and racing.
Blood Horses could have been much tighter and tidier but that would be to mistake the type of genre Sullivan has chosen. Like the essays in Pulphead, Blood Horses blends history, reportage and personal essay. The book is an excellent contemporary example of the mixed form that the critic Northrop Frye once called an “anatomy”. The hallmarks of the genre, Frye wrote in 1957, are its “digressing narrative”, its “creative treatment of exhaustive erudition.”
Sullivan was indifferent to horse racing before he started this book but he warms to his subject. “It is beautiful when the horses themselves appear, in their ignorance and their majesty,” he writes of the 2002 Kentucky Derby. “And the jockeys! Who could not love a sport with its own paid battalion of wee men, their bright, gay skills, their young faces, their ambiguous quasi-midgetry.” His enthusiasm rubs off.