- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 13, 2006

A FINE PLACE TO DAYDREAM

By Bill Barich

Knopf, $24, 228 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

I’ll bet that even if you don’t like horse racing, Ireland or drinking, you’ll like this book. That’s a big bet, but this eminently readable book is all about big bets, not necessarily the kind you make at the “betting agent’s,” but the kind you make with life, the fates, Your Maker — call it what you will.

Bill Barich is a fine writer as many readers already know, semi-famous ever since “Laughing in the Hills,” his wonderful 1980 book about horse racing (which caused an Amazon reader-reviewer to write, “‘Laughing in the Hills’ could have been about how beans are canned, and it would still be a classic”). In this book he returns to the sport, but along the way he adds so much more. Mr. Barich, who wrote for the New Yorker from San Francisco for many years, moved to England several years ago — and therein, as the Irish might put it, lies a tale.

Writing about himself in the third person, Mr. Barich explains that “the journey really started when he sold his house near San Francisco and rented a flat in London to freshen himself, fully expecting to go home in a few months and buy a fishing cabin in the Sierra Nevada, where he’d rusticate from middle into old age.

“That was three years ago, but instead he had the good luck to fall in love with an Irish woman and the surprising bravery (given his usual shyness in these matters) to fly to Dublin and pursue her, and now he has a brand new life. The move required a leap of faith, but no doubt love in any form, at any time or any age, demands such a gamble, and at odd moments he feels a sharp kin-ship with the horses, who, when they take flight and leave the earth, hang for a half-second in a cloud of uncertainty before they know what the future will bring.”

Now if that doesn’t make you want to read on, then you might as well stop reading this review right here (you insensitive clod).

Happily ensconced in Dublin with his new love, Mr. Barich succumbs to an old one, his passion for racehorses, especially “jumpers,” and decides to chronicle, through Irish-American eyes, the grand obsession known as the National Hunt, run every March at Cheltenham Racecourse in England.

“While the English are fond of their racing,” writes Mr. Barich, “I discovered the Irish can’t live without it. Their embrace of the sport is passionate, a streak of lightning in the blood. Nothing grips them as powerfully as the sight of horses jumping over hurdles and steeplechase fences, maybe because it carries an echo of the country’s rural, agricultural heritage and has the power to touch people, even move them.”

Happily, he follows the Irish races with great interest, but soon finds that the “flat races” bore him. “Devoted to speed, they were over in a flash, while a good chase unfolded as leisurely as a Hardy novel. The jump races were rich in subplots and dramatic reversals of fate, too, plus they had a pastoral aspect that was transcendent, and entirely beautiful.” Forgive me if I quote too much, but Bill Barich is the kind of writer who makes you do that, makes you interrupt the closest person to say, “Just let me read you one more thing.”

Several of Mr. Barich’s six previous books were travel books, and “A Fine Place to Daydream” is overflowing with passages that make the reader want to go there, do that, and drink this. (Speaking of the latter, if you’re Irish-American and gave up “the drink” for Lent, this book is definitely post-Easter reading.) His approach is a disarmingly personal one by which he pulls you into wherever he’s going and makes you feel a part of the conversation.

As a writer, Mr. Barich seems to have either very little ego or a wondrously disguised one, because he never makes you feel talked — or written — down to, and his marvelously spare yet effective descriptions flow smoothly across the page, like one of his favorite jumpers readying for the next fence.

The book is Mr. Barich’s record of a journey, “one that began back in October, when he joined the caravan of Irish horses, trainers, and jockeys to record [the Festival’s] progress on its bumpy road to Cheltenham.” Month by month, the book covers the period leading up to the Festival, the heart of the National Hunt, about which one observer wrote, “Many of the best horses come to the festival, as well as huge numbers of Irish Fans. Hundreds of thousands of pints of Guinness are drunk and hundreds of millions of pounds gambled.”

Mr. Barich interviews scores of folks, from the Racing Priest to the man standing next him at a pub, but he concentrates on the owners, jockeys and trainers, and over the months the reader gets a full picture of why both horse racing and “the jumpers” are such obsessions with the Irish.

The information is one thing, but the incidental scenery, both natural and man-made, is in many ways the better part of the book. Here’s the author’s description of the scene at the track when an Irish horse wins an important race:

“All at once the fabled Irish victory cry rose around me, a bellow of sheer unadulterated joy that had in it the roar of the ancient high kings, of Finn McCool and Brian Boru, a touch of Molly Malone’s melodious pitch for cockles and mussels, and most definitely the echo of well-oiled voices bouncing off the cobbled streets of old Dublin through an eternity of late-night exits from a thousand different pubs. Men were hugging one another, holding up fistfuls of bills, raising cups of beer, and singing, of course, off-key at times and yet unashamedly, with force and vigor.”

Throughout the book, while he is gathering his material, Mr. Barich is also handicapping the final race, trying to decide how to bet, and while the reader begins to care about the outcome, that’s not really the point. The point is making the journey along with the author and feeling the anticipation and the excitement build. Like the race itself —and life, of course — it’s the getting there that counts.

As Bill Barich writes at the end, “It shouldn’t have come as a shock that the Festival was over, and yet it did. Sheep still grazed on Cleveland Hill, but the horses had gone away. Our real lives were there waiting for us, dimly glimpsed but beckoning, and as the shock began to wear off, I was eager to reclaim my own.”

I’m sure Ireland is a fine place to daydream, but then so is this book.

John Greenya is a Washington writer.


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