Author is in top form with her story of racing as told by humans and horses

Wednesday, June 28th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

When someone's running at the top of her game - say, an author with a new book cantering up the best-seller list - it's typical to say she's "off to the races."

Though it may not be common for the metaphor literally to come true, that's what is happening with Jane Smiley and her new novel, Horse Heaven (Knopf, $26).

Ms. Smiley, whose latest work lunges headlong into the spirited world of Thoroughbred racing, will cross the finish line on a three-month national tour for Horse Heaven with a signing and talk Thursday evening at Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie. It's the first book signing to be held at the racetrack, but organizers say the fit between Ms. Smiley's new book and the venue was too perfect to pass up.

Ms. Smiley, 50, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1992, will sign copies of Horse Heaven, give a short presentation and answer questions from fans. Copies of the book will be available, with 5 percent of the proceeds benefiting Dallas-based Equest, a nonprofit therapeutic riding program providing equine-assisted therapy and rehabilitation for people with disabilities. Equest riders will give a demonstration before the races begin. A featured race will be held in Ms. Smiley's honor.

G.W. Hail, vice president of marketing and sales for Lone Star Park, whipped up the idea for the event after happening on Horse Heaven while browsing in a bookstore. Ms. Smiley, he says, depicts the racing world with hilarious, devastating accuracy.

"Every race she talks about, every little detail, makes you feel like you're right there," Mr. Hail says. "She obviously did her homework."

He says he especially enjoyed Ms. Smiley's inclusion of the character Eileen, a temperamental Jack Russell terrier.

"That breed's a racing person's dog. It seems like everyone in the racing world has a Jack Russell, and they all have that . . . well, attitude. Those dogs just have serious attitude," Mr. Hail says with a chuckle.

Several horses - Justa Bob, Mr. T, Epic Steam - also serve as central characters in Horse Heaven, with personalities just as compelling and conflicted, if not more so, than the human players.

Ms. Smiley, in a phone interview from her home in Monterey, Calif., says the idea for Horse Heaven came to her one day while listening to National Public Radio.

"I heard Frank Deford use the expression 'spit the bit,' which comes from a racehorse deciding he's just had it, he doesn't want to do it, he's not gonna try anymore," Ms. Smiley says. "And I realized that there's this whole language of horse racing, this whole world really, that's gone largely unexploited in fiction.

"And I was just the girl to exploit it."

Readers of Horse Heaven might well assume Ms. Smiley teethed on a riding bit, so genuine are her detail and nuance. For instance, her description of a young jockey's first race, told from both his point of view and the horse's:

"Justa Bob hated the rail, everyone did, so he hesitated a moment and let some of the others spurt to the front. Now he ran steadily but rather slowly, counting time with stride after even stride. All Roberto did was feel his mouth for him, to let him know that he was there. Around the first turn, Justa Bob picked an intermediate route, maybe five horses back and two lanes off the rail.

"Halfway around, he switched leads to refresh himself and dug in a bit, lengthening his stride to pick off the fifth horse, but still running easily. As he passed the fifth horse, he pinned his ears for a moment, making a comment, perhaps, that only the fifth horse could understand. . . . Roberto thought of going to his whip, but Justa Bob informed him in no uncertain terms that that would be unacceptable.

"He was a class or two above the company in this race, and to whip him would be insulting. So Roberto just continued to hold the animal's marvelous mouth in his great hands, letting his own body stretch and fold with the rhythm of the horse."

Despite her dead-on narrative voice, though, Ms. Smiley swears she had no particular racing knowledge. She merely did her research, as she does with every book. The prep time varies greatly from book to book, she says; for Horse Heaven the research took about seven months, the writing another two years.

"I had a few riding horses before I started on the book, and I'd been to the races, but I wasn't seriously involved," she says. Horse Heaven changed all that. She embraced a world she couldn't let go of when the book was finished, and she now has 19 horses, including brood mares, foals headed for the track and pleasure horses. She also has three children and some dogs in the mix.

One of the book's horses, Mr. T, is based on Terson, a retired racehorse that Ms. Smiley owned for about six years.

"Tick-Tock (his nickname) was a very dear horse; he taught me everything about horses. I adored him," Ms. Smiley says. Tick-Tock died last July.

Her own Jack Russell terrier, however, is still emphatically alive and "thinks Eileen should get top billing," Ms. Smiley says. "She can't understand why it's not called 'The Jack Russell Terrier, Eileen, and Some Horses.' "

Ms. Smiley's gift is her versatility and ability to immerse herself and readers in unexplored realms with each new novel, says Robin Desser, a senior editor at Knopf.

"You know you're in the hands of a novelist who's absolutely at the top of her form," says Ms. Desser. "And she never, ever repeats herself - in topic, style, anything. She's continually challenging herself and delighting us."

Ms. Smiley's other novels include A Thousand Acres, which won the Pulitzer Prize, Moo, The Greenlanders and The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton. She wryly calls winning the Pulitzer in 1992 "more of a glancing blow than a head-on collision," noting that, because she'd already written several books by then, "It didn't really change my attitude toward my work."

Ms. Desser says Horse Heaven is Ms. Smiley's best work yet, with all the elements of her writing style and personality gelling.

"It's got the comic timing, the huge compassion, and Jane's absolute willingness to enter a world and put it through her enormous brain and turn it into a novel that's page-turning, brilliant and funny.

"Sometimes geniuses don't make you laugh, but this genius does."

Although a few real-life characters, horses and bits of racing lore make cameo appearances in Horse Heaven, Ms. Smiley says, "All the true stuff is pretty neutral. . . . Some of the horses are based on actual horses, but of course they can't sue," she adds with a laugh.

"As for the scandals and such, I just made those up from scratch. Not that there isn't plenty of that in racing. Racing's like life - people are making mistakes all the time, but the great thing is they just keep doing their thing."

The reaction from readers both in and out of the racing world has been overwhelmingly positive, Ms. Smiley says.

Fans at Lone Star Park can't wait for Ms. Smiley's visit, Mr. Hail says. "We've ordered 350 books, but it's not really about book sales. If we can get some sales and help Equest, that's great, but it's really about having her [Ms. Smiley] here and having the fans participate in the event."

Mary King, executive director of Equest, says the nonprofit agency's volunteers, riders and their parents are also thrilled. "We can't wait to see her."

Joy Dickinson is a free-lance writer based in Corrales, N.M.