Friday, December 17, 2010

Lord of Misrule

By Jaimy Gordon

Kingston, NY, McPherson, 2010

Week 51 Fiction

It made the headlines of the local newspaper. A creative writing professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo had won the National Book Award for Lord of Misrule. My ears, of course, perked up. Ah, another book for my list. Last year, two local authors had made the nomination list—Bonnie Jo Campbell for American Salvage and David Small for Stitches. (Both of those books are reviewed on these pages.)

About a week later, Jaimy Gordon appeared for a reading at the downtown library, and I was in attendance. At that point, I knew nothing of the book and nothing about the author, except that the book was published by a very small publishing company and that Jaimy Gordon had been Bonnie Jo Campbell’s teacher.

The story of the creation of Lord of Misrule is almost as interesting as the book itself. For a few years in the late 1960s, Gordon worked at a race track near Baltimore as a horse groom. She wrote a draft or two of the novel in the years following the experience, published a couple of other books, and then submitted this book to the publisher of a previous book. The publisher rejected it, and she put it away in a drawer, taking it out only to make a short story out of a couple of the chapters. It languished in her drawer for 10 years, “a huge lump standing in the way of me and progress.”

Finally, this year, Bruce McPherson, who had published another of her books, forced the book out of her drawer and submitted it in galley form to the National Book Awards committee. The rest, as they say, is history.

And now, on to the book, itself. I have to say that I had trouble making sense out of Lord of Misrule. I have no prior experience with racetracks, horses, loan sharks, groomers, or any other part of the scene, so the learning curve was severe. However, about half way through, it all began to click, and I gave up the struggle and immersed myself in the jargon, the plot movement, and the characters.

The book is divided into four parts, each named for one of the horses in the stables of the Indian Mound Downs racetrack in West Virginia. Over the course of a year, the horses are involved in four races, and there are four main characters as well; an old African American groom, a “gypsy” woman owner and trainer, and a young couple trying to make a living as horse owners. Maggie, a college-educated “frizzy haired” girl could easily be a stand-in for the author. Her boyfriend, the horse owner, is a con man in training. Over the course of a year, these horses and these people are involved in racing, feuding, fighting and death.

The horses have as much a role in the story as the people. They have personality and depth of character. The racetrack, too, has personality. “It was a complete world, but it was a flat world too—one pure unmitigated plane of being, all the way to the edge, where you fell off. Then it was all void, all menace.”

The reviewer in the LA Times sums up all these characters in one succinct sentence: “Sort the men from the horses, so similar are their slaveries, their striving for nothing, their tendency to be ruled by lesser animals.”

Part of the beauty (but I also must say, part of the difficulty) of the book lies in the language and dialogue. Gordon calls it “third person limited.” Mostly, you are privy to the thoughts of each of the characters, one voice at a time. The reader has to first figure out who is speaking in each chapter. Particularly confusing were the thoughts of Tommy, the horse owning con man. He thinks in the second person, so all his thoughts about himself are “you.” Lots of horse racing terms are bandied about. Lots of slang. I made the mistake of not reading the definition of a “claiming race” that appears before the book begins. Do read that—it will make all the difference in understanding the book.

I began underlining phrases and thoughts that I particularly felt were beautifully put, such as “blue crucifix eyes of the goat." In describing the horse Mr. Boll Weevil at the gate: “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.” I could go on and on.

I would suggest that if you want to tackle this book, read a couple of reviews, particularly Jane Smiley’s review in the Washington Post. Additionally, the review in the Women’s Voices for Change website is excellent. That reviewer says, “It is, no more and no less, another of those rare and acute studies of the human condition, timeless, tragic, moving, while being firmly rooted in a place and a time brought to life for the reader’s pleasure."

The Washington Post Review:

The review in Women’s Voices for Change:

The review in the LA Times:

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