Review: Four Dead Horses, by KT Sparks

Sparks weaves a story steeped in pathos, humor, and satire bound together by one man's desire to live his American dream.

Literature Review


Four Dead Horses
Four Dead Horses  by KT Sparks. Available via Bookshop.


“Martin Oliphant had always hated horses. Their staggering stupidity. Their unexplained, unexpected, and ever explosive snorting. The way they twitched distinct patches of their skin to dislodge flies. The way they shied madly at the most innocuous occurrences."


As soon as KT Sparks' novel begins, we learn that her protagonist hates horses while, quite ironically, his lifelong obsession with cowboy poetry weaves the story together. The opening sequence gradually unravels the life of a mid-Westerner Martin Oliphant, tunneling the narrative to disentangle the story of his dysfunctional family. The account, which spans from 1982 to 2016, covers the changing hues and tones of Martin’s life as Sparks deftly weaves a story steeped in pathos, humor and satire bound together by Martin's desire to live his American dream.


A man who hates horses, Martin, nevertheless consciously chooses to hold on to his dream of becoming a cowboy poet and irrevocably desiring the cowgirl, Ginger. We meet him as an insecure young adult who had to change the trajectory of his life and career to nurse a mother suffering from breast cancer, euphemistically referred to as “tennis elbow” by the family; and look after a father suffering from dementia. Even though we encounter a typical dysfunctional family where the elder brother sacrifices his dreams at the altar of familial obligation, and the younger fully realizes his dreams and potentials, Martin is the unsung hero of the novel and his own life. 


For her readers, Sparks does not merely paint a sordid picture of Martin’s life. The tragedy is laced with humor and sarcasm, making for a gritty tale about a man who in turn infuses some vitality into his dead dreams and desires through to the very end. Martin waits for years to perform at the Annual Elko Cowboy Poetry Confluence, as the narrative unfolds throughout this wait. Needless to say, the romanticism, sarcasm, mundane humor and pastoralism of the cowboy poetry is interspersed and intensely tied up with the turmoil of Martin’s life. 


The indifference of his brother, an unfulfilled love story, his unflinching friendship with Julie, the agonizing struggle of his mother, and the affair with cowboy poetry are shards of broken American dreams and idealism which Martin Oliphant lives with. The author does not attempt to create a caricature of American dystopia, but molds a character who fabricates an unrealistic American dream for himself in full awareness. 


The strength of Four Dead Horses  lies in its temporal structure, which not only captures the 80s era but establishes a bridge between it and 2016. Throughout, the book takes satirical jibes at the human inability to resist the fissures and avoid darker realities. The novel is also replete with literary references and poetic lyricism, which is reflected not just in the style of writing but also the symbolism and the depth instilled within the characters.


Martin Oliphant’s life unfolds like a Künstlerroman  for readers to assess the growth of an individual and an artist. His evolution follows his changing dynamics with several characters and traces the depth of his understanding of poetry. From his first performance his passion for cowboy poetry is unquenchable. Every major life altering event is laced with the gritty realism and sarcasm of cowboy poetry. What becomes of a vulnerable underconfident boy from a broken American family might seem like a very run of the mill story, but as one delves deeper one learns more about a man who creates an American dream for himself with a dash of idealism despite inherent dysfunctionality. KT Sparks highlights the pathos of this tale by using blunt satire and humor to alleviate dry and grim realities, garnished with sepia-toned poetic lyricism in its finest taste.



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Literature, Fiction, Review, Female authors, Poetry, American West, Becoming