By Jaimy Gordon
Vintage 2011 (McPherson & Company 2010)
Reviewed by Bob Wake
The West Virginia racetrack hangers-on that populate Jaimy Gordon’s 2010 National Book Award-winning Lord of Misrule have rich inner lives that sweep them up in ecstasies of insight or irrationality; guided by seer-like divinations; glutted and spellbound by sensuality; pulled apart by rage and self-destructive impulses. The story, set in 1970, is mythic yet rudely earthbound, refusing at every turn to romanticize the meanness of lives circumscribed by the hardest of luck.
Luck, after all, can turn on a dime or the dusty final stretch of a horse race. And luck, like God, requires faith in its intervention and patience with its mysterious ways. Tommy Hansel, a college-educated wannabe stable-owner, surmises:
It came because you called to it, whistled for it, because it saw you wouldn’t take no for an answer. Luck was the world leaping into your arms across a deep ditch and long odds. It was love, which is never deserved; all the rest was drudgery.
To Medicine Ed, the racetrack’s aged and superstitious dispenser of both conjured and chemical performance enhancers, Tommy Hansel is “a young fool.”
The only horses you’ll find at the fictitious Indian Mound Downs are past their prime and damaged physically and spiritually. They run in what are called “claiming races,” meaning they’re for sale prior to post time. It’s supposed to keep things level and fair: only horses of similar value compete against one another. Should a claimed horse win the purse, i.e., “win going away,” the major share of the winnings are awarded to the previous rather than the new owner.
Individuals trying to game the system (or trying simply to intuit the combined aerodynamic alchemy of grooming, feed, exercise, phenylbutazone, and a hopefully not-too-psychotic jockey) comprise the good, the bad, and the ugly at Indian Mound Downs. The novel’s most memorable heavy is the “slug-lipped” Joe Dale Bigg, a bullying mob-connected owner whose base of operations is the front seat of his “midnight blue steel-top Cadillac.”
Our lifeline to normalcy and human kindness in Lord of Misrule arrives in the person of Maggie Koderer, gangster’s niece and failed culinary journalist. Her grooming instincts with horses are preternatural (“she tried to believe in the blind connectedness of her body, its unknown powers”), the animals trust her and are attracted to her, as we are, as readers. Maggie is more often than not guided by her better angels, unlike her lover, Tommy Hansel, who increasingly loses his way in the narrative, his sanity crumbling while Maggie’s strength grows. As we gallop toward the fourth and final section of this startlingly original novel, when the portentous titular horse Lord of Misrule is scheduled to race, we’re in a symbol-laden no-man’s-land that seemingly draws from the richest of literary traditions, from biblical apocalypse to Shakespearean madness-on-the-heath.
Written in a kind of roaming second- and third-person-intimate narration with alternating points of view, each chapter is a slipstream connecting fluidly to the next, momentum and memories building steadily, sometimes abstractly, sometimes inscrutably. Then, about midway through Lord of Misrule, without our at first realizing it, we discover ourselves fully immersed in a world and a cast of characters—human and equine—with whom we feel eerily connected on the deepest elemental level. By the time Maggie is lured into Joe Dale Bigg’s Cadillac our concern for her safety is such that we’re breathlessly clicking pages on our Kindles dreading the worst.
Bob Wake is editor of Cambridge Book Review.