The world of high-stakes horse racing as told through one jockey’s coming of age.
Set against the social upheaval of the late 1960s, Halstead’s debut novel captures the exciting world of horse racing. Jock Travers, an 18-year-old jockey, is trying to shake off his past. Coming from an abusive home and “[g]iven his father’s moodiness and his mother’s reactions, he was never sure where he fit in.” Leaving the California racing scene for Chicago, Jock finds bad luck when he meets Vinnie “The Ring” Rescuitti, a mobster. After falling in love with Rescuitti’s daughter, Sabrina, he makes a series of bad decisions. Retreating back to California and unable to be a jockey because of pending criminal charges, Jock hits rock bottom. The one bright spot in his life is Tricia, a go-go dancer who eases his pain. After Tricia leaves him and a catastrophic earthquake hits the Santa Anita racetrack, Jock ends up racing in the fair circuit. What makes the novel so successful is Halstead’s extensive knowledge of all things horse racing, a world in which he immerses his readers with curious details of jockey routines and psychology, betting angles, and the behind-the-scenes realm of groomsand exercise boys. The narrative, however, sometimes gets bogged down with miniature history lessons about famous racehorses, jockeys and trainers, which, though interesting in their own right, might draw readers away from the novel’s main action. Jock is a compelling, complicated character with a drinking habit he’s trying to shake. In an intriguing narrative choice, throughout the novel Jock dreams of Strong Eagle, a Native American who lived in the 19th century. On a quest to recover after losing his wife and child, Strong Eagle acts as Jock’s alter ego. Both Jock’s and Strong Eagles’ journeys feature a recurring theme of overcoming fear. Strong Eagle visits Man Afraid, a holy man, who tells him: “Man’s actions and reactions are based on fear.” Jock, acting out of fear his whole life, fails to love and let himself be loved. As Strong Eagle’s fate unravels, Jock suffers a possibly career-ending injury but in the process finds a new love in Marti, his nurse. Halstead sets Jock’s path of self-discovery against that of the plight of Native Americans during the late 1800s. Both struggle to survive in a world that seems bent on destroying them. The narrative also parallels Jock’s rehabilitation with the history of Chief Joseph, who fought but ultimately surrendered to American forces. The Native American aspect enriches Jock’s story, making for an expansive, fulfilling novel.
A satisfying story filtered through one man’s journey to overcome his past.