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 marriage later, to start at the bottom. Bo is the groom Barich comes to know best:
They were suspicious of owners and trainers alike. On more than one occasion a groom had told me in confidence that he’d left his last employer because he’d been instructed to mistreat the stock. Instead of participating in such malice, imagined or not, grooms moved on, going from trainer to trainer, track to track, state to state, leaving in their wake beer cans and whiskey bottles, broken marriages and promises broken on principle. Sometimes they left for no reason at all, or because the booze or dope had finally fried their circuits. But through it all they remained faithful to some inner model of goodness, an eccentric and singular moral code, and always to the horses.
Having always associated particular grooms with particular trainers, I never had seen them as a group, yet what Barich says seems entirely true to what I know.
The story he tells of Headley and Bo Twinn mostly involves a filly named Pichi, an ordinary three-year-old maiden except she is an angry cripple when Headley gets her, and except her owners show unusual understanding. Headley nurtures Pichi to health and then to willingness and then to running, eighth at 85-1 in April, third against cheaper horses at 23-1 in May, finally a shorter priced first win in June just before the track closes. The owners treat Pichi’s story as if it were National Velvet, and Barich makes it the climax of his book.
But Golden Gate is not like National Velvet, and Headley, Winn, and Pichi are mixed in with the often not very gaudy life of the racetrack.
Arnold Walker looked like an envoy sent from a far country for the express purpose of breaking hearts. If all gamblers share a common innocence, a nostalgic longing for a condition prior to habituation, then Arnold was a superior gambler by virtue of his superior innocence…. He’d spent a lifetime avoiding the truth. He was fifty-three, thrice-married, and his face, tanned to a Boca Raton brown even in April, was entirely absent of lines.
On the backstretch:
Because women were permitted to do “men’s work,” the backstretch was supposed to be a liberated place, but I saw little evidence of this. More often I felt as if I were back in high school, observing the same tedious sexual restraints.
Richard Labarr had been a hairdresser in Sacramento when he bought a cheap horse. He saw it win $20,000 in purses off an original $2,500 investment, and had “given up a comfortable life in the freeway universe to become a racetrack gypsy,” a not very successful jockey agent, actually, who “gave an occasional on-site haircut to trainers, too busy to go to a barbershop.”
Barich went to Golden Gate, however, to find not just a different world but an orderly one, and he soon discovered an ominous side. Pichi is bred to run, and can be made to run only when an owner is understanding and a trainer is willing and talented:
A patient trainer might squeeze one win per season for each baling-wire beauty, but the purses offered in low-level events were small indeed and barely covered costs. Pichi, when she deigned to eat, cost as much to feed as Alydar. Trainers charged owners about twenty dollars a day, plus veterinary bills, to stable a horse, but even the stingiest among them had trouble extracting a living wage from drips and drabs of double sawbucks.
Temptation, then, was everywhere, in every shedrow, and certain darkling princes were known to succumb on occasion.
A trainer who darkens a horse’s form to make a killing of a few grand, a jockey who stiffs a horse to help keep the form dark, even trainers on the lookout for drugs beyond the knowledge of the equine testers, are pikers compared to the track managers who want more horses no matter how sore or ill, more races, more racing dates, more dividends. Or compared to the state, which will countenance almost anything to increase its take. After Barich interviews the general manager of the Golden Gate track, Clifford Goodrich, he finds himself saddened by the man’s neat cynicism, even though Goodrich himself seemed “still young enough to look ill at ease when he had to skirt around the edges of a potentially incriminating question.” Only coyotes laugh in the hills of northern California, and everyone else senses that what comes in the small-time racing game must go, usually sooner rather than later.
Barich seems in difficulty when he tries to appear as an expert. After only a few days at the races he sounds confident about a horse’s gait and condition during a race, something I feel I can judge only some of the time after many years of trying to do so. He makes mistakes. Raindrop Kid “was seventh at the three-sixteenths pole, but I expected him to begin moving soon and he did, on the outside. By the stretch he was within striking distance,” the trouble being that at Golden Gate and everywhere else the three-sixteenths pole is well into the stretch. “On foggy days the track was heavy and moist, deep and dark as chocolate, and then I looked for horses who’d been running in the Northwest, at Longacres near Seattle or Oregon’s Portland Meadows, because they were used to heavy strips and often ran better than the Form indicated they might.” Fair enough for Portland Meadows horses, since the racing there is in the dead of winter and the track must have plenty of sand to absorb heavy rain, but Longacres is a summer track, lightning fast, anything but heavy.
Still Barich is good on the everyday life of the track, good on the thrilling moments, on the streaks when a bettor is unaccountably in phase, on the looks and appeal of horses and people who love them. His own longing consorts well with the many kinds of longing that are at the heart of tracks and horse racing. The very slackness that is so often wrong with New Yorker prose has its uses here, since it enables Barich to move around, writing about experiences that are hard to fit together although each separate one is worth describing.
It appears that the one reasonably ordered world Barich had visited before he came to California was that of Florence, where he invented his own version of the Renaissance by abandoning formal study and haunting museums, palaces, and churches. He brought some Renaissance books and history with him to Golden Gate, and uses some of his reading—much of it from the National Geographic and Horizon—as decoration and commentary. Thus, after his talk with Goodrich, the track’s manager, Barich inserts a knowing paragraph about Cellini’s saltcellar, “he’d outstripped the object’s purpose and gone beyond it into decadence.” California Beware seems the message, I guess. Worse—since part of the California that presumably should beware stays at Barich’s motel, “where I felt imprisoned in an aspect of the Middle Ages, some dark and barbarous time” because people watch television at night—Barich manages to conflate the tenth and the sixteenth centuries. It is a carelessness characteristic of Barich when he is jabbing at what he calls the “freeway universe.”
There are almost as many people who know that race tracks in this country can be nasty and shady as know how awful California can be. But about the track Barich is slow, careful, patient as Gary Headley is patient with a crippled horse; elsewhere he is indulgent.
Laughing in the Hills can be placed alongside Andrew Beyer’s My $50,000 Year at the Races and James Guetti’s novel, Action, as being among the books honorably describing a fascinating subculture. But it also claims fancier literary status, alongside A Fan’s Notes and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, inflated gospels of defeat. It belongs there too, alas.
March 5, 1981