Laughing in the Hills
by Bill Barich
Viking, 228 pp., $10.95
When the long sections of Laughing in the Hills appeared in The New Yorker, I was delighted and envious. I have myself written about Longacres, the race track in Seattle, trying to say what it is to be a bettor and absorbed onlooker. Bill Barich spent the spring of 1978 at a similar track in northern California, Golden Gate Fields in the East Bay, longing for “an escape into orderliness”; “the track seemed circumscribed and manageable, especially when compared to the complex filigree of nature, hydrogen intertwined with embryos and tumors.” He did so with an intrepidness I can seldom muster because backstretches and jockey rooms, while friendly enough, never welcome an outsider. He hung around, moving from barn to clubhouse to boardroom, bars, and betting lines with apparent ease, critical sympathy, and a clear eye. He changed what is a pastime for some, a serious hobby for me, into a real subject.
Still, his prose suffers from defects I associate with The New Yorker, a combination of relaxation and knowingness that allows the writer to be careless. When Barich calls nature “hydrogen intertwined with embryos and tumors,” I see only showiness; and his description of Sunday afternoons in the East Bay is worse:
All the shopping malls were busy, and in them a different music obtained, thin and reedy. It had the consistency of aural linoleum and played at varying tempi because the tapes were old and hopelessly fouled and sometimes skittered from “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” to “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree” without any segue. Nobody cared; they were busy consuming electric hot-dog cookers and cases of STP and room deodorizers that smelled like the aspens being felled in the Sierras to make way for ski condominiums.
“Obtain” and “segue” seem inserted only to give an impression of sophistication. The rest of the words could be replaced with countless others: all the streetcars were full, and in them a different people obtained, sullen and peaceful. They had faces that looked like wet sand, etc.
Barich’s writing about the track, however, is quite different, probably because the track matters to him. Before he came to Golden Gate, he visited his mother who was dying of cancer on Long Island; he idly went into OTB offices and got hooked, so that when his marriage fell apart back home in California, Golden Gate seemed an attractive place to recover:
Gary Headley, the trainer, and his groom, Bo Twinn, were having coffee the first time I visited their barn. They sat in lawn chairs, smoking and reading the Form, and rested their cups on a round lowslung table made from a salvaged telephone-cable spool. There were doughnuts on the table, and empty almond packs and soda cans. Both men looked tired and dirty after the morning’s work.
Headley is a restless man, taking on a string of horses, doing well enough, but then going out into the real world and returning, jobs or a …