Of course, LORD OF MISRULE is the name of a horse. It resonates well with anarchy, chaos theory. The splendid dust jacket picture on this novel shows a lone horse and exercise rider coming down the track out of the misty nothingness. How apt for this fine literary horseracing novel, an underdog longshot from a small press but now nominated for the National Book Award.
The book is about one year in the life of typical small-time trainers and backstretch workers. The comparison here with Damon Runyon's fiction is hard to avoid. Jaimy Gordon's characters have names like Tommy Hansel and his girlfriend, Maggie Koderer; the gypsy Deucey Gifford; the veteran black groom, Medicine Ed; Kiddstuff the blacksmith; Suitcase Smithers the stall superintendent; Two-Tie the grifter racetrack tout; and the leading trainer, Joe Dale Bigg. Their horses carry names such as Pelter, Little Spinoza, The Mahdi, Railroad Joe, Mr. Boll Weevil, and of course Lord Of Misrule.
Archetypes or stereotypes, take your pick. Either way, much of this novel rings true with this reader, who began working on the backstretch at age twelve, selling newspapers, and who, as an adult, owned and raced his own horses for many years, sometimes at such minor tracks as in the novel, including Beulah Park and River Downs.
Parts of the book seem like the familiar lyrics an old song heard once again, containing both high comedy and deep insight. Here from this novel is the typical lament of the veteran racetracker, Medicine Ed, no doubt true now and always, but certainly true back in the time of this novel, set in 1970:
"Seem like every day since time he been thinking what a shame and pity it is how the world is coming down, how the pride of work has disappeared, until they just laugh at him, the boys that come on the racetrack now--how the horses is misused and abused, started out racing too young before they bones is hard, not rested proper and dosed with all kind of shots and pills, and so consequently don't last--how these five and dime horse trainers and they ten-cent owners anymore be tighter than the bark on a beech tree, when it come to anything but rush rush rush them horses back to the track and collect a bet. It ain't no real sportsmen round here no more, if it ever was, or either sportswomen. And John Q. Public wasn't no dumber than he used to was, but also he ain't no smarter."
I liked the opening metaphor of the automated hot-walking machine: "the going-nowhere contraption" you can't get around, comparing it to the lost souls of the backstretch life itself, going round and round, saying that "right down to the sore horses at each point of the silver star, it resembled some woebegone carnival ride, some skeleton of a two-bit ride dreamed up by a dreamer too tired to dream."
Rather than using the actual historic names for horses, the author uses proper names that might resonate with her deeper themes. For example, speaking of thoroughbred bloodlines, rather than writing, say, "this was the blood of Man O War," she writes "this was the blood of Platonic," the words of Plato resonating with her twinning of the male and female protagonists, each in search of its other half to make themselves whole again.
I don't have any major complaints, but I do have quibbles. She gives the power to write races to the stall superintendent rather than to the racing secretary. Well, this is fiction. Part of her racetrack vernacular is historic and part of it is obviously the author's own invention, so much of it well done yet her so often repeated use of "go-fer," "goofer," and "gaffer" grated on this reader after a while like Gomer Pyle's drawn out "gol-ley." At one point she describes the chestnut coat of a particular racehorse as whiskey red, and a few pages later compares it to the color of old fire hydrants. She should have stuck with whiskey.
Gypsy was a common racetrack term back in the days when racetrack meetings were short. The self-described gypsy horsemen I knew in the past were always small-time owner/trainers who traveled from track to track like migrant workers and resided lightly in tack rooms and horse vans. It was only their mobile life which made them gypsies. Most caught in this life were, like Medicine Ed in this novel, always hoping to find a place to settle down, looking for a home.
The narrative drive in the opening ten chapters is nicely paced, but after that it becomes a tad disjointed, too episodic, and the book needed its girth tightened in the middle. The narrative picks up the bit toward the end and finishes well.
Over all, this is a damned fine novel. My picks for the very best ten novels of 2010 include such high quality longshots as Robert Flynn's excellent ECHOES OF GLORY, Clancy Martin's amazing HOW TO SELL: A NOVEL, James Hynes's NEXT, and Paul Harding's TINKERS. I wasn't familiar with those announced as nominated for the National Book Award, but now if LORD OF MISRULE should win it, I won't be too disappointed or too surprised.
If you enjoyed LORD OF MISRULE and are looking for similar works expressing the poetry, comedy, and tragedy of racetrack life, I suggest you read Bill Barich's excellent LAUGHING IN THE HILLS, a fine work of creative non-fiction. Also fine are Carol Flakes' TARNISHED CROWN and Jane Smiley's A YEAR AT THE RACES and her novel, HORSE HEAVEN. And if you want to see a first-hand account of what backstretch life was like during the time of this particular novel, see Billie Young's BITS & PIECES OF THE BACK SIDE.