The Smoking Horse

A Memoir in Pieces

By Stephen Spotte

Subjects: Autobiography, Biography And Memoir
Series: Excelsior Editions
Imprint: Excelsior Editions
Hardcover : 9781438431390, 195 pages, March 2010

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With an ear for life’s fractured melodies, marine biologist Stephen Spotte recounts his lifelong study of literature and the sea and his search for the mythical place where reason and revelation intersect.


In The Smoking Horse, marine biologist Stephen Spotte recounts his youth from the mid-1950s through the turbulent 1960s. After growing up in a coal camp in southern West Virginia, he was expelled from a Maryland boarding school and over four summers lived a bohemian life in Beach Haven, New Jersey, working variously as a lifeguard, clamdigger, dishwasher, laborer, and milkman. Beach Haven in the early sixties was a riotous community of artists, musicians, drunks, junkies, and those who had simply fallen through life's cracks. It was, someone said, a seaside Greenwich Village, and in fact it became a weekend destination of New York City bohemians abandoning the hot summer sidewalks to mill with itinerant beach bums, boat jockeys, New Jersey pineys, and Philadelphia hipsters. It was here that Spotte began a lifelong study of literature and the sea, always with an ear to life's fractured melodies. Torn between art and empiricism, he moved to New York, haunting Village coffee shops, listening to beat poets, and following New York's jazz scene, where ragged sages claimed enlightenment in Coltrane's sax. Following stints as a deckhand in the West Indies he returned to college and trained to become a marine biologist. His professional life began in Niagara Falls, New York, where the Great Lakes were dying after years of pollution, the citizens struggling to breathe air reminiscent of the coal camps. The end of the memoir finds him separated from his wife and wandering alone in the Mexican desert astride a skeletal, marijuana-dependent horse and trailed by a stray dog, still seeking the mythical place where reason and revelation intersect.

Stephen Spotte is Adjunct Scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida. He is the author of Bluegills: Biology and Behavior; Zoos in Postmodernism: Signs and Simulation; Candiru: Life and Legend of the Bloodsucking Catfishes; and Home is the Sailor, Under the Sea: Mermaid Stories. He lives in Longboat Key, Florida.


"And we're off, dispatched to the Spotte universe, a world that's all about perception, the objects that may be closer than they appear—including people. It's a world in which the ridiculous is so ridiculous, and so regrettable, that it requires no irony whatsoever. Just the facts, expressed in a beautiful, on-point prose style." — American Book Review

"The Smoking Horse is all about the good old days … [Spotte's] stories are funny and outlandish." — San Francisco Book Review

"As memoir, this book illustrates beautifully how a talent for empirical observation advances the aims of prose narrative. What ultimately emerges is a subtle disquisition on the relationship between the scientific mind and its literary executor." — Joe Amato, author of Once an Engineer: A Song of the Salt City