The setting of Jaimy Gordon's "Lord of Misrule" (McPherson, 2010), which won the 2010 National Book Award for Fiction, takes the reader to Indian Mound Downs, a dank half-mile fictional racetrack in West Virginia. Then and now, the North American circuit of half-mile (four furlong) tracks, referred to as bullrings, are very depressing venues. Toothless jockeys, dubious trainers, desperate punters, wretched shed rows and bottom-of-the-barrel claiming horses make up the cast of this hospice.
The reader gleans from an occasional reference that the time period is sometime in the late 1960s. Subsequently, Gordon's choice of time and venue forego any possibility of weaving the romance of Thoroughbred racing into the story.
Within two turns of a page, Gordon introduces four of her six main characters. The first among them is Medicine Ed, an elderly groom who lives race to race in a rusted-out camper just off the shed row. Ed, both a sage and cheat, is quick to notice a couple new faces at Indian Mound, trainer Tommy Hansel and his girlfriend, "frizzly haired" Maggie Koderer.
Ed has seen this act before, where a trainer quietly vans in a few horses, enters them in can't-miss spots, cashes in at overlayed odds, and leaves town a little richer at the expense of the locals.
Duecey Gilbert is a horse trainer at Indian Downs who makes both stubborn and ill-advised decisions that bring on bad fortune. Duecey is a rebel because she has nothing else to be, and of all the characters I liked her best. For some reason, Gordon finds it important to note on more than once occasion that the black-toothed and ample-gutted Duecey takes a shine to women.
The real story, though, is about Maggie Koderer. My take is that Maggie may very well be the fictional personification of the author, as the "frizzly haired" Gordon spent time as a twentysomething working the shed rows at Charles Town race track in West Virginia.
Maggie is a 290-page conundrum who has left her yesterdays behind with no hope of finding her tomorrows. She's a thunderhead that calmly passes overhead. She's a rainbow in black and white. At times she is dominated and at times she dominates. Her only seeming constant is her passion for the horse Pelter, but even that eventually gets iffy.
For what it's worth, just about everyone but Medicine Ed and Pelter is trying sleep with Maggie. While we're on the subject, sex has so little to do with the story that it becomes pointless as to why Gordon uses it. When offered, it begins to read like an attempt at a formula for Harlequin Romance. Gordon comes from such lofty literary pedigree that you'd presume she would know better.
Of course, it wouldn't be a bullring if there weren't gratuitous references to a few small-time underworld types. Enter Two-Tie, a local grifter and loan shark, and Mob-tied Joe Dale Bigg, the leading trainer at Indian Mound.
Gordon introduces us to other colorful yet minor characters with names like Kidstuff and Suitcase Smithers. We barely get to know any jockeys, and aside from Bigg, Duecey and Hansel, there are only two other trainers in the story -- Zeno and the witless D'Abrisi.
The book is divided into four "races," each relative to a horse involved in the plot. The locals are onto Hansel faster than mud on a pig's hoof. Keep in mind that the 1960s was long before the advent of OTB and the only handle came from the track, so quick money was hard to come by.
Hansel's plan goes Dixie when his entries get pounded at the tote and go off at short odds, so short that even Maggie bets against him. Hansel's horses, a string of old though once seemingly formidable (in a Thistledown sort of manner) mounts, don't comply with the plan either.
It took me a while to get into the rhythm of Hansel's plan and how all the players were involved, and once I caught my stride the plot abruptly swerved to one of Bigg dubiously claiming Pelter and using the horse to coerce Maggie to lie down in the straw with him, as it were. For insurance, Joe Dale Bigg slips Ol' Mags a mickey of horse tranquilizers, and the scene becomes borderline Mel Brooks when a doped-up Maggie mounts the horse in question (bareback!) and scampers off through the darkness like Annie Oakley on PCP.
In the end, Gordon does a superb job of fusing the subplots, culminating in -- what else? -- a race. But if you're looking for a rags-to-riches ending here, you're "muck" out of luck, as "Lord of Misrule" ends in a tailspin with these degenerates and ne'er-do-wells finding nothing but ruin, death and despair.
Setting, characters and plot notwithstanding, there are a few things to know that may sway your interest from reading this book. Gordon voices many of her characters using dialect, and though the style is beautifully crafted, it can also be a smidge overwhelming. For example, Medicine Ed reads like Uncle Remus, Duecey like a bouncer at Lilith Fair, and the assorted jockeys and grooms like the extras in "Matewan."
Additionally, Gordon has a penchant for interchanging the second and third person, thus the placement of the pronoun becomes your best friend. Finally, in what some may consider a more egregious nuisance, Gordon completely omits the use of quotation marks. This, more often than not, results in disguised dialogue and a nebulous point of view.
To be fair, Gordon is a terrific seamstress of idiom. For decades she has been mired among the capsule of the literary elite, and in "Lord of Misrule" she clearly lives up to that pedigree with an elegant use of narrative patois.
If you are a fan of literature as an art form and are the type who reads Joyce while listening to Schoenberg, then "Lord of Misrule" will be a pleasurable read. However, if you prefer a read with watered-down dialogue and plot lines thinner than the last shaving of ice in your bourbon glass, you should pass and stick to the schmaltz readily available from the Oprah Book Club.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||Jan. 25, 2011|