Four Dead Horses

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Listed as a Best Southern Book of April 2021 by Southern Review of Books

On May 1, 1982, eighteen-year-old Martin Oliphant watches a horse drown off the shore of Lake Michigan—the first of four equine corpses marking the trail that will lead Martin out of the small-minded small town of Pierre, Michigan, onto the open ranges of Elko, Nevada, and into the open arms, or at least open mics, of the cowboy poets who gather there to perform. Along the way, he nurtures a dying mother, who insists the only thing wrong with her is tennis elbow; corrals a demented father, who believes he’s Father Christmas; assists the dissolute local newspaper editor; and serves stints as horse rustler and pet mortician. For thirty years, Martin searches for an escape route to the West, to poetry, and to his first love, the cowgirl Ginger, but never manages to get much farther than the city limits of his Midwestern hometown—that is, until a world famous cow horse dies while touring through Pierre, and Martin is tapped to transport its remains to the funeral at the 32nd Annual Elko Cowboy Poetry Confluence.
Laugh-out-loud funny, darkly sardonic, overflowing with heart, Four Dead Horses is an exquisitely crafted romp through one man’s life in the Upper Midwest and the dreams of versifying cowboys that carry him through.

Praise for Four Dead Horses

“If I had to choose one book, just one, to get me through a pandemic—or any other aspect of twenty-first century living—Four Dead Horses would be it. KT Sparks writes with a sleight of hand magic that  turns sharp humor into compassion and molds lovable characters out of the absurd stuff of everyday life. I’m heartened by the humanity in this novel. Wannabe cowboy poet Martin Oliphant is an unlikely (un)hero who makes me laugh and gives me hope—not the Hallmark card kind— but the gritty, hilarious, intelligent hope we all need to make it through the world today. Definitely one of my favorite books of the year.”

— B.K. Loren, author of Theft

“KT Sparks has written a wild, sharp-edged, wickedly funny debut novel. Her characters are truly vivid and eccentric creations. Sparks is a master of perfectly controlled, fully loaded, turbo-charged sentences that will surprise and delight you.”

— Dana Spiotta, author of Innocents and Others and Stone Arabia

“If John Irving had chronicled the upper Midwest, he might have written this boisterous, satirical gem of a novel. At times wickedly funny, at times poignant, Four Dead Horses is an unforgettable portrait of Martin Oliphant, an elephantine Michigan man who hates horses—and may occasionally (and unwittingly) participate in their demise—but who nevertheless dreams of performing with the real cowboys at the Annual Elko Cowboy Poetry Confluence. It is rare to come across such a remarkably assured work by any writer, much less one who has never been published before. Four Dead Horses is a joy to read, and the prose seems almost effortless in its grace. Yet this is clearly the work of a craftsperson who has toiled long and hard to master voice, dialogue, story, and—to often devastating effect—characterization.”

— Brad Parks, bestselling author of Say Nothing, Closer than You Know, The Last Act, and the Carter Ross mysteries

“Sparks writes with ecstatic generosity of spirit, wicked humor, and doesn’t flinch as she stares down the sometimes-tragedy of everyday American living. Martin Oliphant is a loveable schlub who wants to make his life a little grander and more poetic, like the cowboy poetry he so adores, and I was rooting for him the whole way. How rare to find a book so savagely smart while also so full of compassion for its aspiring hero. Four Dead Horses is a triumph and a delight…and as the grandaughter of cowpokes I love it a little extra too.”

— CJ HAUSER, author of Family of Origin

“This brilliant debut is a perfect balance of smart satire, plaintive poetry, dreadful loss, and humorous escapism that will whiplash you all the way to its unexpected and delightful conclusion. Four Dead Horses is already one of my favorite books of 2021.”

—J. Ryan Stradal, author of Kitchens of the Great Midwest and The Lager Queen of Minnesota