"Keeneland," by Alyson Hagy. Simon & Schuster. 270 pages. $23.
On the backstretch of every racetrack in America, invisible to fans betting their two bucks in the grandstand, is a gritty subculture of oddball characters and hard-luck gypsies who do the grunt work in the Sport of Kings.
Alyson Hagy's "Keeneland" gives readers a fascinating look at this hardscrabble life, and her timing couldn't be better. The novel arrives weeks before the Kentucky Derby, the only time ordinary Americans pay any attention to horse racing.
Hagy's tour guide is Kerry Connolly, a brassy 27-year-old who ekes out an existence by exercising horses in the morning for $10 a ride. She's come home to Keeneland, a gorgeous race track in Lexington's bluegrass country, broke and battered, without the husband who lured her to New York or the champion mare, Sunny, who means more to her than life itself.
Sunny is in jeopardy because Kerry's husband is deeply in debt to New York loan sharks, who have already taken vengeance on one of his horses. "Keeneland" is the story of Kerry's bumbling, often pathetic, struggle to rescue the mare -- and in the process to come to terms with herself.
There is a lot to like about this debut novel from Hagy, the author of two well-received short story collections, "Hardware River" and "Madonna on Her Back."
She is a lovely writer with a fresh and distinctively American voice. Listen, for example, to trainer Alice Piersall describing Kerry's husband, Eric: "That man of yours -- if he's still your man -- is an empty pair of shorts, just like his oil slick of a daddy." Or to Kerry describing daybreak at trackside: "It had rained for maybe an hour after midnight, but the morning had hung itself up to dry."
Hagy also is a terrific reporter. She has the nuances of the racing life down cold and has created a host of memorable characters -- from the blunt and overweight Piersall to her crotchety foreman Reno and her unscrupulous, oversexed rival trainer Roy Delvecchio.
Where "Keeneland" falls short is putting these characters into action. Hagy's plot tends to amble, rather than race, and she has a maddening habit of bolting on the turn -- just when it's time to capitalize on the dramatic tension building in the story.
When she ditched Eric and headed for Keeneland, Kerry stole $10,000 of her husband's money and some valuable jewelry. For the first half of the novel, the tension revolves around her fear that he'll show up looking to settle the score.
Midway through the book, as Kerry walks among the stables, she stops the narrative with this line: "I didn't recognize him at first, probably because I wasn't making human faces come into focus."
It's got to be Eric, right? Wrong. It turns out to be an old boyfriend named Kevin. He'll eventually add a wrinkle to the plot, but his arrival serves only to delay, and thus defuse, the inevitable confrontation with Eric.
Such missteps prevent "Keeneland" from being a first-rate novel. But there is enough here --the writing, the characters, the insight into racing's underbelly -- to make it worth reading, especially with Derby Day in the offing.
Stephen Proctor is The Sun's assistant managing editor for features. He recently completed a year's sabbatical as a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University, where he studied, among other things, the contemporary short story. He has been involved in the operation of a thoroughbred racing stable for nearly a decade and has been known to wager on the outcome of horse races.
Pub Date: 04/16/00