At the rock-bottom end of the sport of kings sits the ruthless and often violent world of cheap horse racing, where trainers and jockeys, grooms and hotwalkers, loan sharks and touts all struggle to take an edge, or prove their luck, or just survive. Equal parts Nathanael West, Damon Runyon and Eudora Welty, Lord of Misrule follows five characters, scarred and lonely dreamers in the American grain, through a year and four races at Indian Mount Downs, downriver from Wheeling, West Virginia.--book jacket.
There are no triumph-of-the-underdog moments in author Jaimy Gordon's book. Her mythical Indian Mound Downs is populated by infirm, battle-scarred old horses and the owners, grooms and trainers who try to eke out a living with them. Some of the characters are noble, in their way, some deranged, some capable of murder and rape, but few of them harbor dreams much grander than winning a cheap race, collecting a small purse and perhaps cashing a bet.
Everything in this ramshackle place is broken or about to be, populated with hot-walkers, grooms, jockeys, trainers and third-rate gangsters, all christened with names like Deucey,
Medicine Ed, Two-Tie and Kidstuff. The line between these misfits and the brokedown horses they live for, blur again and again.
The author presents this world in a unique language, full of slang and verbal shortcuts, doing away with quotations and some punctuation, so it flows like poetic grunge. This makes for some difficult reading, but there is beauty to the prose and at times you can smell the dust and horse sweat, emanating from the page.
“An hour before Little Spinoza’s first race they sat around in a funeral mood-all except Little Spinoza who stood in his bucket of ice as cool as a Tiffany cocktail stirrer, dreaming in black jewelry eyes of emerald alfalfa and clover of Burmese jade. He had miraculously regained his innocence as they had all lost theirs.”
I can see why this National Book Award winner, has divided readers. It’s not an easy read but I find my problems with the narrative, a deficiency in me and not in the writing. If you are up for the challenge, I think the rewards will be yours.
Tommy Hansel is a newcomer to Indian Mound Downs Racetrack and he has a plan: he’ll bring in four horses that are better than they look, win big and quickly get out. Things don’t go exactly as planned. It’s the story of these characters, their gritty lives and commitment to these mediocre steeds that might provide them with the wherewithal to buy that used trailer if only they can win Saturday’s $1,500 race. They live from race to race as others live from week to week. Gordon paints a grim picture of life at the track and its genuineness is unsparing.
The narrative depicting the race scenes is absolutely riveting.
“Gates clang open and Mr Boll Weevil, he is looking for a home all right. He’s still looking around that gate like he’s thinking about putting up wallpaper in it, making a down payment on a living room suit, moving in for life. Finally he drops his big head and it soaks in that all them other horses have done already gone and left him behind. He takes off running, passing horses right and left, and you can see he ain’t half trying yet. He just eats holes for hisself between them other animals in his weevilly way.” (Page 52)
And yet something about the story feels disjointed. Besides the gritty dialect, that takes some getting used to, the characters, for whatever reason, go by more than one name, making it difficult to know who’s talking or being referred to. There were many times when I just didn’t know what was going on. By the time I got to the last hundred pages, I knew what was going on (sort of) but I felt the urge to reread the book, not because I so loved it but so I could finally understand it.
One way I have described the book to friends is: William Faulkner goes to the Racetrack, sleeps on the hay in horses' stalls for a few months, wanders around and writes down what he finds. After reading the first four chapters I put the book down for a moment just to savour what I had read. Refreshed, I picked up the book again and read Chapter 5. It was only a little over one page long but it was so beautifully written and conceived that I had to put the book down again and savour the writing some more.
The book gets a bit more hard-nosed after that for a while but I read on compulsively. I had to go to sleep eventually, but the following day I finished reading the book. Had the world gone through an economic collapse? Had the government passed laws against putting salt on eggs? I was beyond caring. I was still living the book.
My comment about Faulkner comes from the fact that early on in my reading of Lord of Misrule the voice of my conscience (or whatever) was telling me I have to go back and read Faulkner again. I have not done so in a long time...maybe 40 years. There is something in Jaimy Gordon's style that reminded me of the little boy in one of Faulkner's stories sitting on a keg of nails in a dry goods store which is being used by the local judge to try a case of arson. The boy's father's barn had been burned down by a neighbor. I don't remember much else about the story but I feel I have to find it again and read it. There was something in Ms. Gordon's writing that gave me that same sense of high drama taking place in a backwater local setting.
The National Book Award Committee made a wonderful selection. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has ever put two dollars on a horse or may have had the inclination to do so....and of course, to everyone who enjoys fine literature.
The author’s style required very intense concentration from me. She uses a difficult, sometimes unintelligible, jargon in her dialogue and no quotation marks whatsoever. Also, for the first time ever in my reading experience, the author occasionally switched to some form of narrative where the omniscient narrator addressed one of the characters with “you”. (??) As you can tell, I found the whole novel too difficult to enjoy. The writing here is often extraordinary, but for my taste it is too showy. What a shame for me because I cared about and rooted for the character of Maggie and really, really wanted to love this award winner.
Anyone who loves horse racing should love it. Every character is singularly drawn (and quartered).
Every character in this book is trying to stack the odds in their favor to either simply survive in or walk away very rich from the horse racing world. The truth is that they are all susceptible to what feels like a perpetual cycle of many losses with an occasional win so long as they remain within the confines of the racing world—which can be seen as a metaphor for human existence in the world at large. Gordon’s characters know or learn the ins and outs of the racing world, for better or worse, and they do their best to continue to put a roof of their own over their heads (Medicine Ed), keep a horse in their stall (Duecey), protect their family (Two-Tie), discover who they are (Maggie).
This book is also about the fallacy of the Cinderella story. Each person who makes any kind of gain, legitimate or otherwise, does so through hard work or very dirty dealings, which often lead to unpleasant consequences. There is nothing pretty about the workings of this horse race world, even some of the horses themselves have been run ragged. Yet, everyone loves a Cinderella story, even if they have to ignore a few shady details to believe it.
In the end, Maggie discovers that she is stronger and more capable of handling life than she ever knew herself to be before coming to Indian Mound Downs. She no longer feels she is there simply to take care of Tommy Hansel and his horses; she was there for herself as much as for any man or any animal.
The language in this book is divine. Even in the early stages of the book when I was trying to orient myself and when the action was slow, the language kept me reading. The first two chapters are great, but it was as if Gordon was purposefully keeping us in the gate while all we wanted to do was burst out and get on with the race.
I’m glad she finally opened the gate because the story really picks up. While the whole book is superb, Chapter 27 is some of the best reading I have ever had the privilege of experiencing. I went over it at least twice and plan on reading it again. In that chapter, specifically, Gordon carries the reader on her back as if she were a seasoned thoroughbred; the reader is never distracted or thrown off by a single word. The entire book is drenched in images and phrases that had me breaking out the highlighter and rereading pages for pure enjoyment’s sake.
For me as a writer, the greatest strength of all, regarding Lord of Misrule, is that every time I put it down, I wanted to write.
Because Gordon approaches her characters from nearly every angle, and makes masterful use of dialogue and interior monologue, they all become creepily real and the sensuous and dangerous relationships evolve expertly, luring the reader surely into this seedy world of used-up horses and fixed races. I didn't know a whole lot about horseracing before reading this. Now I feel like I know something. The vernacular, the smell, the feel of it - this writer delivers it all. I've noticed some readers have whined that Gordon failed to use quotation marks for her dialogue, that it made the story hard to follow. I disagree. This 'style' worked fine for her. And she is not the first writer to dispense with such niceties of grammar or punctuation. I only recently saw the same stylistic device in a couple novels by South Dakota writer Kent Meyers, whose books have won a raft of awards. Complaining about something like this is nothing more than nit-picking, particularly in the face of a literary achievement like Gordon's.
Every character here, misfit and villain alike, is perfectly realized. A particular favorite of mine was Two-Tie (Maggie's erstwhile 'Uncle Rudy'), with his fastidious and fussy ways of an old bachelor, whose only love is his dog, Elizabeth, an aging and arthritic German Shepherd. The description of the dog's descent of stairs ("reared back a little and let down the two in front, bump, then came the two behind, da-bump") and of her being "more of a thinker, not a athlete, nutting like one of those idiot fox-running dogs, all yap and slobber ..." will immediately grab dog folks. For me it brought to mind the dog/man relationship expressed so perfectly in J.R. Ackerley's wonderful memoir, MY DOG TULIP.
Most of all, this is a feat - and a feast - of story-telling. Jaimy Gordon had me from page one, and she didn't let go until the very last page. These are compelling characters, every strange one of them. Put aside some time when you read this book, because once you start it you won't want to put it down. I didn't want it to end, but she even managed to end it in a way that left me feeling satisfied, thinking, 'yeah, that's exactly what would happen.'
Appropriate that a story about the subverting of “sure things” should be set at a racetrack. What setting better lends itself to a tale of people needing desperately to believe they can exert some control over fate, only to discover otherwise? Tommy Hanson, the story’s reagent, believes he can make a fast buck running ringers in a series of cheap claims races – only to see his best-laid plans thwarted right out of the gate. (Pun, sadly, intended.) Maggie, Tommy Hanson’s girlfriend, carelessly indulges her penchant for violence and risk by hooking up with Tommy, confident that she can control whatever chaos ensues – only to find herself in a situation that she genuinely cannot control. Medicine Ed, an old groom at the dead-end racetrack where Tommy and Maggie wash up, believes his “goofer dust” can “magic” horses into winning – but finds himself paying a terrible price when he tries to use it. Meanwhile, various mobsters operate (mistakenly) under the arrogant delusion that they have the power to predetermine the winners of races; a rather decent gentleman by the name of Two-Tie believes (mistakenly) he will be able to protect his niece Maggie from herself (in the process redeem a mistake he made years before – which doesn’t happen either); a female jockey believes (mistakenly) that she can “sing” a washed-up “could-have-been” champion into winning; all of which culminates in a final stakes race in which fate truly has the last laugh, orchestrating the most improbable of all possible outcomes (which, don’t worry, I won’t spoil here, but be sure to appreciate the glorious chaos and irony of Gordon’s big finale when it comes). Ultimately those characters that learn to bow to the whims of fate survive, while those who insist on trying to control their own destiny come to bad ends (madness, death), and fate spins on, unflustered and unrushed, God’s eternal hot-walking machine.
I mention that the book really is “about” something, because the vast majority of favorable reviews I’ve read don’t even mention the plot, focusing almost entirely on the story’s “Runyon-esque characters” and the author’s “unique voice” – both of which I found so off-putting, I very nearly didn’t finish this. With apologies to the National Book Award people, are you guys sure you weren’t so dazzled by Ms. Gordon’s literary furbelows – her faux-authentic racing lingo, her nervy use of dialect, her flashy shifts in point of view (including whole chapters narrated in second person – there’s something you don’t often see), her fearless embracing of physical and spiritual ugliness, her disdain of quotation marks and other textual conventions – that you neglected to notice that extent to which these flourishes make the book laborious to read and distasteful to digest? Yes, I appreciated the humanity of several notable characters (especially Medicine Ed, the one and only reason I’d ever read this again); I understood the inherent nobility of the horses, selflessly sacrificing their sinews (though never their dignity) in the cause of a sport they didn’t create; and I “got” Two-Tie’s sacrifice. But even these weren’t enough to offset the sense of general “yuckiness” left behind by the loathsomeness of the imagery (too much violence, bondage, humiliation, blood, snot, sweat and stench!) and the moral turpitude of majority of characters in the story; my annoyance over the lack of quotation marks and having to wade through such dense dialect; or my frustration at the author for sacrificing good storytelling to the Gods of Modernism (or perhaps to the National Book Award gods, in this case).
Am not sure I’ve ever read a book over which opinions were so polarized – half the people loving it, the other half loathing it. I’m willing to come down somewhere in between – but having said that, I definitely won’t be recommending this to friends and am not sure I’ll be reading anything else by Gordon in the future. This felt way too much like work for way too little reward; too much frosting over too little cake, if you will. Literary critics and book prize judges will have to fawn over her next tome without me.
While the dialects, lack of quotation marks or spacing of dialogue, and Gordon's changing points of view require a bit of acclimation and close attention, soon enough you will be enveloped by the narrative; read a few words into the sentence and the identities of the speakers becomes obvious.
Gordon's knowledge of small-time horse racing and attention to detail is impressive. I can only imagine the amount of research a work like this required. And, even though the story includes realistic portrayals of the abuses and suffering of both horses and people, the book remains as objective in its stance as it can. Yes, one can tell the "good" characters from the "bad" ones, even if flaws and worthy traits appear in both, but Gordon avoids easy resolutions. This is the story about lives lived, not fortunes made; but the poignant emotions evoked by the tale and its memorable characters are what make this novel worthwhile.
Gordon's language is incredible, and it makes Lord of Misrule worth reading: "The sun beat down and by three the red dirt glowed back around each barn and strip of grass like the works of a toaster. The heat was a bullying heat that muffled sound, so that a person saw a brush or bucket fall or a tiechain drop and heard nothing, just a kind of clap of air, a flat toneless echo. Every now and then a sparrow flopped down in the dirt and scratched around."
At times, I felt uncomfortable with how close Gordon came to the dark hearts of her characters. In particular, the sexual descriptions of Margaret from Tommy Hansel's point of view made me want to stop reading. It's not an author's job to make life pretty, of course, and later I gained sympathy for Hansel. But I think there can be too close of an identification with some characters. It's problematic, I think, to put some voices into the world without modulation, without a bit of distance.
I found Lord of Misrule a difficult read. It is not a "page turner that you can not wait to get back to". Ms. Gordon uses a staccato cadence and pacing which never settles into a comfortable flow. There are several deep dialects that never become familiar. You are not always sure who is speaking to whom, even occasionally whether human is speaking to human or to an animal.
This is not a book about horse racing. It is a book about hardscrabble people in a hardscrabble place trying to get from one day to the next. Yes, the race track is the setting and framework, but the story is one of survival, hope and despair. Luck is always around the next corner, but never really at hand.
I never felt that the characters were vivid, they were always a bit hazy and distant. I felt that I was looking into a shadow or a through a layer of film. The narrative is also sketchy and jumpy throughout, almost more lyrical poetry than prose at times.
This is all certainly intentional and not necessarily a bad thing, just disconcerting at times. Lord of Misrule simply requires a good deal from the reader and will not resonate with everyone.
Finally, there are several passages where the imagery suddenly devolves into vulgarity which many readers may find extreme.