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Track Conditions

by Michael Klein (Wisconsin, 1997)

Michael Klein's Track Conditions: A Memoir, is not a long book, but it ranges over enough topics to make subject-matter classification difficult. It is helpful to recall that the author is a poet an adept at the arts of compression and exclusion. Although his memoir covers four years in his  late twenties (1981-1984), the book includes a number of powerful vignettes from his youth, and reads more like a meditation than a narrative. To put it another way, it is more like a photograph than a report. Track Conditions is also an object lesson in the difference between history and memoir: while the historian struggles to get at long-past events, the memoirist, like the poet, works entirely in the present, with time's flotsam. As such, he is as different from other memoirists as any of the horses to whom Mr Klein introduces us differs from the others.

Horses are one of the topics of Track Conditions, as you might well expect. So are: alcoholism, homosexuality, child abuse, gambling, itinerancy, and some of the country's great racetracks. Even AIDS makes a powerful, if brief, appearance:

"Klein, take care of this son of a bitch," he said. "He's a good one. He's by the Slew." It was one of the last things Billy Carter ever said to me. A week later, he started bleeding from every orifice and had to be rushed to the hospital. It was the strangest thing I'd ever seen happen to anybody. You had to wear a surgical mask when you went to visit him. All anyone could say was that his blood cells were out of whack he didn't have enough platelets and that he couldn't breathe. What the doctors knew in that southern town of old money on the one hand, and moonshine in Laundrytown on the other, was that Billy Carter was a black man dying of some strange disease. Nobody paid it much mind. That summer, after a spring of oxygen and days in bed, Billy Carter died of what was about to be called AIDS.

The memoir begins with Michael's following a runaway lover, Richard, from Hell's Kitchen to Cincinnati. Richard has retreated to his father's world of racehorses as a last-ditch attempt at self-preservation, in flight, we're told, from Michael's "drinking problem." Richard has his own demons, of which drink is certainly one, but Track Conditions is not about Richard. It is about needing Richard and needing in general.

"I'll try to stop drinking," I said softly.

But trying would never last long. Drinking was my role in the relationship and I put it between us, from the beginning, with the authority of a welder lowering a face shield. I needed to drink, but I also needed Richard...

Track Conditions spans the turmoil between that half-hearted promise and the surrender to rehab. Mr Klein does not offer any remarkable insights into addiction and recovery, except perhaps at the end, when he has the courage to write, twelve years after the time-frame of his memoir, that "It's never been easy being sober and, as I said, it didn't come easily just emphatically." That is a distinction for a poet to parse: when you arrive at an understanding of what it means to shake a destructive habit, you may find that Mr Klein has already expressed your experience with memorable words.

As for Michael, he has his own history with horses. There were two things that he used to do with his stepfather, and the not-so-bad thing was going to the races, where the man who married his mother, even though he didn't like women, lost so much money that the family had to move from Central Park West to Coney Island. Now, though, Richard will teach Michael about actually living with horses, and eventually Michael will become a groom. And, in time, a groom for a Derby winner that "son of the Slew." To wit, a horse called Swale. Having lost the Preakness but then won the Belmont, Swale up and dies, for no good reason. By this time, however, Michael is no longer his groom, for Michael has finally drunk his way out of Swale's barn. The loss for Michael is immense, for Swale has taken Richard's place at the center of Michael's life. Might it have been serious for Swale, too?

From the very beginning I paid an inordinate amount of attention to Swale. He was clearly the best horse I had ever laid a hand on, and if I took care of him, he'd take care of me emotionally, I hoped, and momentarily. Before Swale, the racetrack existed only in the present time but now there was a future. And Swale was able to get out of me a kind of love that hadn't burned out from drinking. When was the last time I loved anything without thinking too much without being its judge?

It is not Swale, then, who ushers Michael into rehab. Mr Klein doesn't say so, but Swale looks more like an enabler; as long as the horse is in his life, Michael doesn't have to deal with the gritty drinking problem. It is only after he loses Swale, and then the world loses Swale, that Michael is defenselessly confronted by something deeper than conscience. The message comes in the stare of another, unnamed horse.

I got a job hotwalking for Mary Cotter, my last official job on the racetrack. I had drunk a lot the night before and was very tired. I fell in the shedrow, still holding onto the horse's shank. Instead of taking off with me the way Aide to Reason had taken off at Latonia, the horse looked down at me in a locked stare. "What are you doing?" the horse seemed to be saying."

Mr Klein's ability to exclude material that, however interesting, might discolor his memoir is even more remarkable than his compressive skill. Having come to the decision that he doesn't want to drink anymore, Michael turns for help to "the only person I knew on the track who had gotten sober." All at once we understand not only that the world of horses is full of drugs, drunks, and casual homosexual encounters, but also that the author has never once pinned responsibility for his shambolic behavior on the racetrack environment. Even more surprising is his determination to refrain from portraying himself as an interesting person. This he leaves, with annealing irony, to Steve Crist, a reporter who writes him up after Swale's Derby win, in a piece that isn't published until the day after Michael loses his job. The article, given at length, presents a very different Michael from the one we have come to know. Having captioned Michael as a "Renaissance Man," the sportswriter tells us that

It isn't that Klein is not interested in his immediate surrounds, but that he has lived in and sees beyond the world of the race track. Even seeing his colt win the Derby, the dream of everyone who has ever owned, trained or rubbed a horse, has not tempted him to put blinkers on

"I guess I'm not what people think of as the typical groom," he says with a wry smile of understatement. "Grooms are supposed to say 'Yes, sir' and 'No, sir' a lot and whistle while they work and talk to their horses. That's not me."

It certainly isn't. If Klein whistles while he works, it's likely to be a few bars of one of his own compositions or maybe something by the jazz artists Al Jarreau "Swale really liked him as a baby."

Once we get over the shock of seeing Michael's "wry smile of understatement," we realize how meaningless it is not just the wry smile but Crist's portrait as well. We see that the piece is meant to tickle readers with something "cool" a Renaissance man combing down a thoroughbred. But we grasp that what Crist has depicted is the animated crust of a shriveled soul. "Renaissance avatar," would be more like it; for the Michael Klein of Crist's article is no more actual than a Second-Life hottie.

We might have seen this sooner, but Mr Klein arranges things so that we probably miss it, at least until we go back for a second look. In the manic run-up to Michael's collapse, for example, we're taken to a party at Keeneland, a racetrack so "nice" that there is no announcer.

Less than a week after my arrival in Lexington, I was at a clubhouse party being given for owners and trainers. I can't remember how, as a common groom, I was ever allowed into the celebration, but I was. After insulting John Veitch (I don't remember what I said) and telling Dale Hancock, Swale's co-owner, that I was in love with her, I was either thrown or got pushed into Martha Lane Collins then the governor of Kentucky and my drink flew into her face.

Re-reading this passage in light of Steve Crist's piece, we see not the boor so much as the bright and charming young drunk whose smile must have opened a lot of sesames. It is greatly to Mr Klein's credit that this character is withheld from our view until the real Michael has had a chance to establish himself, in all his unattractive misery, in our minds.

This is not to say that Track Conditions is an unattractive read. Far from it: however warty Michael's appearance might be, his world is deeply beautiful:

The Spa, as it was referred to by practically ever horse person, was so idyllic that nothing could prepare you for it. The light was different. There were more trees. And because racing happened here only in August, the barns weren't enclosed the way they were at Belmont. But for me, the beauty of Saratoga was most exemplified by the early morning steam that rose from the barrels of water heating in the backstretch. There was only cold water coming through those ancient pipes, so a groom's first task was to fill two barrels and fire them from underneath so there'd be hot water to use in bathing the horses when they came back from the track. Two barrels were usually enough to wash down the morning with. It always felt strange making hot water on hot summer days.

Track Conditions is a lean but important addition to the august shelf of thoroughbred literature. And that's not all. (March 2009)

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