Print Edition: September 19, 2012
I approach non-fiction with something bordering on reluctance, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I know exactly where this echo of dislike comes from; it’s not that I don’t like non-fiction, but that textbooks are non-fiction. If you hand me anything resembling a textbook and expect me to read it in my spare time, you’re out of luck.
But I tricked myself into picking up non-fiction this summer and I’m glad I did. It was a reminder that all stories stem from real life, and real life is far from boring.
My Year of the Racehorse is Kevin Chong’s fourth book and second work of non-fiction. As the title suggests, the book spans a year of his life, a period in which he cleverly and bluntly lets the reader into his head and tag along on every trip and conversation. He is an unapologetic narrator, one that we gain a liking for almost in spite of ourselves. (On the other hand, this might be because we know we aren’t stuck with him: as the title tells us, we only have to follow him for a year.)
We start the year with Chong in a way that many people start the New Year: drunk and making a list. Facing the items somewhat soberly the next morning, it hits him that he’s reaching a stage in his life where he should probably start checking them off. Become a home owner. Find true love. Settle down and start a family. See the world. Learn another language. Start a retirement plan. Get a tattoo.
This list ties the book together, even though its first mention comes some 50 pages into the book and Chong mentions it with an off-handed nonchalance. It has a shine of truth to it; these are life goals that almost every person has echoing on a to-do list somewhere, however reluctantly. They’re such normal goals that they’re cliché – and yet every one of them seems like an insurmountable task. Think about it: you can’t just step outside your door one morning and find true love.
None of these goals are going to be completed in an afternoon, so Chong resigns himself to his fate and starts at the top of the list. As he reluctantly admits to the reader, he should see about owning a house. Maybe it’s about time to settle down and stop renting.
So Chong gathers up his modest savings and buys a chunk of property. The kicker? Chong doesn’t buy a house, a condo or even a houseboat – he invests in a racehorse.
“Why make a U-turn in my life,” Chong reasons, “When a couple of left turns around the park would do?”
This roundabout logic leads Chong—and the reader along for the ride—to meet Mocha Time, affectionately known as Blackie, a mare with respectable standings in both speed and profit. This new-found connection to the racetrack leads Chong to a cast of characters, such as Randi, the profane mail-carrier/horse trainer with a heart of gold, and Charlene, a woman who communes with animals through a spirit named Sean.
The events in the novel are hardly monumental; at the end of the day, it’s a book about a man and a horse. But while we meander through one short year and follow Chong’s haphazard forays into places he really has no reason to be, we see a completely honest narrator showing us how he moved from one stage of life to another. It’s a journey too weird to be anything but true. It’s a journey too true to be anything but weird. This is the power of non-fiction; although the events of the book are hardly earth-shattering, they remain gripping.
Chong’s narration is abruptly, and sometimes unexpectedly, entertaining. His sarcastic digs are snicker-worthy, and his deer-in-the-headlights description of the world of horseracing is a mix of hilarious and a thank-god-that’s-not-me sentiment on the part of the reader.
My hands-down favourite element, however, is Chong’s decision to write two other horse-race-themed self-help books, passages of which he includes in some chapters. The first is titled The Winning Ticket Inside You; the second, What I Learned at the Track: a Manual of Failure. Ultimately, My Year of the Racehorse is a combination of both. As a narrator, he’s witty, clever, and peppers his account with just enough imagery and self-depreciation to keep himself likeable.
Over the course of the book, the typical life goal list that Chong has set out for himself slowly begins to evolve. He eventually strikes every item off the list, but without completing any of them to the letter – “find true love,” for instance, becomes “visited a breeding shed.” In short, he leads us through the spirit of the resolutions, rather than falling into the cookie-cutter to-do list that seems to face down an entire generation. Through this process, we begin to see why these things are important and how that changes from person to person – which applies not only to Chong, but to every reader as well.
“I accomplished everything I wanted by not accomplishing these things,” Chong writes, a mere four or five pages left in the book. “Instead, I bought a racehorse. From her example, I learned to see persistence as its own success. You might win some and lose others, but you prove yourself every time you run honestly.”