Monday, March 22, 2010

"Crazy Good," by Charles Leerhsen

Chances are you don't care much about harness racing, but the author of "Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America" makes a worthy effort to change that.

Charles Leerhsen openly admits there is a gap between what interests today's readers and his story of a horse most people have never heard of -- Dan Patch.

The author could have chosen any number of more commercial topics and not written a book that wound up at the 99 cents store where the highway scribe's wife found it.

Instead, Leerhsen opted to write about something that struck his own fancy and asserted, through this labor of love, that there is value in the story of a bygone America where a horse could be quite so famous.

And that's what "Crazy Good" is: Not just a racing story, but portraiture of a country where most people still farm, the automobile is a curiosity, and the business of breeding horses to pull carts, wagons, and coaches an important one.

Dan Patch came of age at the outset of the 19th Century. His America is that chronicled in the novels of Theodore Dreiser. An America where cities clustered around the Great Lakes are pistons in the country's mighty industrial engine.

It is Ragtime America where John Philip Sousa, Scott Joplin, Helen Keller, and Thomas Edison pass for celebrities.

Leerhsen does a yeoman's labor in reconstructing the horse's distant past in Oxford, Indiana, painting in strokes both broad and fine, the Midwestern American landscape surrounding.

His joy in doing so knows no bounds and helps in overcoming some of the inherent weaknesses to this tale.

The primary one is that harness racing is a sport and, even for a veteran of "Sports Illustrated," writing about such spectacles rarely equals the beauty of the thing itself.

This is compounded by the fact Dan Patch's avaricious owner, one M.W. Savage, pulled the pacer out of racing in favor of a traveling road show on which the goal was breaking time records.

Which leaves you reading a lot of times 2:01, 1:57and 1/4, 1:55...

Dan Patch was, in fact, crazy good and his unbeatable stature takes a little drama out of his own story which is hung as a skeleton on which the rustic lives of men with mutton chops and thick mustaches could be draped.

The horse was so sweet-natured and courtly that his lack of eccentricity almost blunts the impact of his story.

But we should allow nice guys to finish first and sticking with "Crazy Good" until its rather sad ending is a worthwhile way of doing so.

Leerhsen has combined superb research, a hokey kind of humor, an engaging structure linking past and present, and a loveable subject in his effort to rescue Dan Patch from oblivion and apply him as a unique lens through which to view an important phase in American history.