Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

For the best review of this book I have read, please check out Kevin from Canada’s laudatory and knowledgeable treatment.

I know almost nothing about horse racing. I have only ever seen horses race on television (or webstream just last night to confirm that Charles Town still has horse racing). The world Gordon shapes into a beautiful novel is entirely foreign to me. That has the disadvantage of my having to learn some racing terms and the ways horsemen and women make a buck at the track. For instance, while I had heard of claiming races before, I had no understanding of how the system worked. Gordon (with the help of KfC’s review) brought me up-to-speed unobtrusively. It still took me to the end of the first race to feel like I had a good grasp of the goings on. The characters were interesting enough and the human strivings sufficiently compelling that I had already been drawn into the story, even if the world behind the track was uncomfortably foreign.

Gordon uses a rotating perspective to give the reader a method of learning everything required to understand the characters’ machinations without long paragraphs of exposition. All the major characters voice the novel from time to time. The most interesting choice was Gordon’s decision to use second person voice for Tommy Hansel, a young upstart who rolls into town trying to get over on the locals. Tommy has a passioante relationship with Maggie Koderer, a wild haired girl who is new to racing.

[Maggie] lies asleep in the straw in some tiny striped shirt that won’t pull down all the way over her belly button, and her jeans are taut and shiny over the keelbones of her hips. She is so small in the middle that you can pull the jeans down to her knees by opening just the one button with a soft pinch of two fingers, and look out now if she doesn’t let you do it, without even opening her eyes to ask who it is, the slut, golden straw sticking in her dense fuzzy hair, thorning the kinky pigtails. And that coassack face of hers, slashed by just the one blade of dusty light that comes through the crack in the barn door. She is so light even in that most rounded and muscular part of her, where the strong sinews twist together in a basin, that you never see her push up to let you, rather she arcs and floats a little over the sweet straw to meet your hand, like a magic lamp with its wick floating in oil….

The choice of giving the second person voice to Tommy is not accidental even if the basis is not apparent near the beginning. Tommy is a dangerous character. Maggie has an odd attraction to him. There is the physical attraction as the above quote signals, that sexual energy comes partly from Tommy’s good looks (e.g. “a beautiful, feline walk, spare, athletic, no cowboy loose-jointedness about it”) and partly from his menacing nature:

[T]here was something odd about his hands. They curled backwards behind his writsts, hiding themselves, as if they knew they were not to be trusted. She knew, herself, that they did not always mean her well. They knew how to do many things, or rather, they knew how to do one thing, how to tame animals, but this they did from a whole forest of angles, and always on sufferance, for under their gentleness was threat.

To balance the naïve enthusiasm of the new kids, Gordon provides the seasoned Deucy and Medicine Ed. The two of them have been around for decades and have seen the likes of Tommy and Maggie hundreds of times. Medicine Ed, an elderly black trainer, is an engaging character and the chapters in which the third person narration includes his thoughts are some of the best. More than any of the other characters, Medicine Ed sees the horses as beings worthy of respect and, sometimes, awe. While he received his nickname for his dabbling in shady performance enhancement substances, he treats the horses with the dignity due fellow sentients.

When Medicine Ed finally had Little Spinoza alone, he tell it into him: Get ready, son. The women gone to take your manhood, he broke the news, not like it was the ned of the world, and next come disease, hospital cases, and death, but like it was the thing the horse ought to know. The first cold had come and they were walking round and round the shedrow in a silver fog that beaded up the cobwebs and the horses’ eyelashes.

Wasn’t no idea of mine. I saw wait a short while, see how he do. Nothing ain’t gone change that horse much at his age. I say he a little bit of a crybaby, that’s all, but easy to settle once he riled. You be surprised, I tell em….They start to laughing. Pretty soon they cackling like witches. Got me outnumbered, what it is.

Medicine Ed checked himself. This was a stab-back and two-face thing to say about the women. They don’t mean no harm, he added. He didn’t want to be a wrong influence on the horse. What good it do if the horse love him and hate them others?

Gordon description of the horses and their personalities grants them a dignity and respect too. They are characters as rich and vital to the novel as any of the humans. The book is romantic about horses (and the lower-echelon trainers, grooms, and jockeys) without romanticizing them. That’s not an easy feat to pull off. Gordon does it beautifull, making this one of the most enjoyable reads of the Tournament of Books.

That is not to say the book is perfect. Some of the plot developments are too predictable, some owe too much of a debt to gangster movies and stereotypes, but the book holds together. I believe KfC when he says that the characters are believably eccentric. Niche worlds seem to attract an outsized portion of the Two-Ties and Joe Dale Biggs of the world. Gordon has tapped into the seedy underbelly of racing in a way I have not seen before and with technique that charms. I will be keeping a lookout for some of her other work, even if her stories do not always have horses in them.

6 Responses to Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

  1. “Niche world” is a very apt label for the racetrack community and you have portrayed it very fairly (for a greenhorn 🙂 ). I know a number of readers have found this to be a frustrating book and I suspect it is because they wanted “real” characters instead of what I found to be real characters in a “niche world”. I can understand that since I could put together my own list of novels set in niche worlds (ironically, the ToB winner would be one of the most recent) that did not impress me, while impressing others.

    • Kerry says:

      I am familiar enough with several other niche worlds that also draw very quirky, charismatic, or nearly cartoonish characters. As you pointed out in your review, to realistically represent such a world and provide an interesting story, you need to portray these characters. Those unfamiliar with the world could see the characters as stereotyped or caricatured when there really are people like, say, Two-Tie.

      At any rate, to the extent I kept up with the horse racing lingo, I really enjoyed the work (as I hope comes through). I agree that Goon Squad also picked a niche world and had some slightly bizarre characters too.

      Thank you for your excellent review. That gave me some signposts without which I would likely have been a little lost in the first third of the book. With your help, I was engaged throughout. I wish it had fared better in the ToB.

  2. I find myself quite tempted by this. I think it’s my love of Runyon, even though prosewise there’s nothing in common.

    It’s one I’ll keep on my radar. I know nothing of horseracing, but it sounds enjoyable and having been warned that at times it’s a little formulaic/predictable I think that’ll help me not expect too much and so enjoy it more.

    • Kerry says:

      Sounds like a capital plan. Given that you are in much the same boat as I with respect to horseracing knowledge, I do recommend a refreshing glance at KfC’s review when you do pick it up.

  3. Biblibio says:

    I have a few reasons why I don’t think I’m going to read Lord of Misrule. First of all, I don’t really like the writing style. Every time I read quotes from the book, I just don’t feel drawn into the story at all. And then there’s the fact that “beautiful writing” has so often let me down.

    I’ve had people try to convince me otherwise and reviews like this do get me rethinking again, but I always seem to reach the same conclusion: probably not the book for me. At least not at this point in my life…

    • Kerry says:

      There are many excellent books out there. If the quotes and reviews of Lord of Misrule have you thinking it isn’t for you, I certainly won’t tell you this is a book you should read. I really enjoyed it, but I definitely do not think everyone will.

      I understand your wariness of “beautiful writing”. My wife often has the same reaction. What constitutes beautiful writing for me is often not what makes a book enjoyable for her. Luckily, there are plenty of books for us all including common points of interest. This just may not be one for you and me.

      Thanks, for taking the time to comment. I find interesting the effect reviews have (or don’t) and the different reactions we can have to a particular passage of writing.

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