Lord of Misrule Paperback – 7 Jun 2012
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'[Medicine Ed and Maggie] are among the vibrant characters peopling the seedy locations of this vivid story' Good Book Guide. (Good Book Guide)
'Mesmerizing ... Addictive' Independent. (Independent)
'This novel is so assured, exotic and uncategorizable ... an incontrovertible winner, a bona fide bolt from the blue' New York Times. (New York Times)
'Profoundly moving ... A sure-fire winner' Sunday Telegraph. (Sunday Telegraph)
'immerses the reader in an idiosyncratic world bursting with startlingly original characters' Sunday Telegraph. (Sunday Telegraph)
'a highly original and untamed novel, full of surprises and daring' The Writer's Hub. (Writer's Hub)
'An exuberant firecracker of a novel' Sunday Times. (Sunday Times)
'Such a beautifully written novel ... Remarkable' Jane Smiley, author of Horse Heaven. (Jane Smiley)
From the Back Cover
He planned to steal with these horses, who were all better than they looked on paper. The trick was to get in and get out fast. But how many actually did? How many winners were that sure? How many thought themselves that lucky? Listen carefully my dear. Lord of Misrule, he whispered loudly. Lord of Misrule, Margaret. Memorize that name.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title. See all Product Description
Top Customer Reviews
Gordon sets an atmospheric scene and some wonderful turns of phrase:
"...And then he does go down. The small, glittering, patched-together black devil, Lord of Misrule, rolling, skidding in the dust, scarred black legs flailing. Because the dying Mahdi has backed into him. Bumped him. And Lord of Misrule, only a phantom horse, twisted together in haste in the Devil's workshop out of abortionists' black wire hangers and the patent leather raincoats of pimps and whores, can't possibly move like a living thing, change leads, get out of the way. Down, down he goes and rolls away from the rail--into Little Spinoza, who goes down too."
This is a left-field winner in many ways, from a small press and contending against a bunch of famous heavy-hitters, set as it is on a dingy third-rate race track in the dingy beginning of the seventies, peppered with track jargon, shifting perspective which doesn't always work, and with a kind of intentional (?) opaque hole in the center where one of the protagonists acts as an unknowable agent of change. It is Tommy Hansel, owner of the 4 horses whose year on the Mound we follow, lover of Maggie, brother to a dead twin sister, who is the real Lord of Misrule, though there is a sense throughout the novel that everyone is complicit in their eventual fate, and everyone gets not what they dream of but what they deserve.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
There are things that I love about this book. The ending of the first chapter hooked me. Granted, there are only five chapters in Lord of Misrule, so there were plenty of pages of pondering whether or not I could do this, but I was determined.
The premise is this: Indian Mound Downs is a backwoods racetrack near Wheeling. It is the 1970s, a time period that does well to emphasize just how downtrodden this track is when the likes of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alydar, and Ruffian were running around in what is arguably American racing's last great decade. Tommy Hansel and Maggie appear at the track with a group of claimers, hoping to get in quick and cash out faster. Their plans are not exactly going to work out, mainly because Maggie is horse crazy (she's one of those characters, complete with the lack of hairbrush ownership) and the fact that Tommy is simply going crazy. At the track already is a group of various characters, all just barely managing to hack out a living with horses that are old and broke down and keep running because their options are that limited. Gordon does a phenomenal job with the horses in all ways, which was one of the highlights of the book. For me, however, she really sold me on aging groom Medicine Ed and his goofer dust, used only when absolutely necessary since it tends to even the scales in some way. Sure, sprinkling a little bit of it in the stall of a horse you want to win might pay off in the short term, but that horse probably won't live to see the next morning.
Another aspect that I fell in love with was Tommy's sanity. It comes and goes, but he is always written in the second person (heavy-handed, maybe) and that just drives it home. However, for as crazy as he winds up being, he's just fully awesome. In a scary psycho way that the author doesn't shy away from.
But the book did wind up losing me, and it wound up doing that for two reasons: rambling and lack of story. There isn't a lot of story in this book. In fact, what plot there is would probably be more suited to a novella or short story than a full-length novel. It's padded with pages and pages and pages of description and tangents that might have been called character development if I felt they had been headed in that direction. Instead they only seemed to drown out the vibrancy of the characters and left me wanting. There is such a thing as too much, and I think this book hit it over and over again. The plot...while definitely recognizable at the end, was shaky in the beginning. If you're not careful, you can miss it entirely and find yourself wondering just what is going on by the middle of the book.
Also, there are no quotation marks. If that irks you, you'll loathe it. It's my personal opinion that lack of quotation marks works only if you're using your words sparingly. This novel is full to overflowing with words, so it's easy to get lost and forced to start sentences over.
So...all together I'd say that there are moments in this book that I loved. Moments I wish had stretched out and kept hooking me to the end, but unfortunately there were too many long moments of navel-gazing that knocked over my interest. Did I get it back again? Yes. It was just hard getting there.
Gordon sets her story in 1970, following the opening of great freedoms by the civil rights movement and, particularly, the feminist movement. Maggie is a cute Jewish girl enjoying her uninhibited life with her new boyfriend Tommy who takes her into the lowlife world of small time horse racing controlled by two-bit hoods. She confuses her choices of uninhibited freedom to mean that she controls her life. And she becomes upset with Tommy, after helping him care for the horses after he makes one bumbling decision after another: "I just can't take my whole brains and talent and invest them in someone else's work and (clean up his mistakes) and keep my mouth shut. How do you stand it?" She is talking to a seventy-year-old black, disabled trainer who is struggling to survive, having no savings and no way to support himself, except to continue working until he dies. "That's what working folks do. I ain't have too much choice in the matter." Medicine Ed just wants enough money to be able to live out his dying days in a trailer with a roof over his head and a clean bed, when he empathizes with one of Tommy's horses, "The horse is looking at a miserable death."
Gordon wraps her story around the philosophy of Spinoza (whose name is given to one of the horses) a philosopher of determinism, the concept that man's life is completely determined by events beyond our control, thus man has no choice, no freewill. Medicine Ed with only a few years to work as old age racks his body, trying to save enough money to buy that trailer, to avoid that miserable death in a flophouse, is trying everything possible to prove Spinoza wrong, to be able to control his life enough to same some money. He mixes prayer, voodoo mysticism and luck, but mostly luck, trying to catch the sure bets, to try to break out of the miserable purgatory of the smalltime racetrack. But it's the two-bit hoods that control their lives, and Maggie gradually comes to realize that, even in her uninhibited freedom, there are places on earth where one is not free to do as they choose, that the horse named "The Mahdi," the prophet of God, cannot beat the disciple of Satan--the Lord of Misrule, that God does not exist in this purgatory, where, awaiting death, they struggle to survive.
This story won the National Book Award for a reason--it's a great story. It is not about the horses and smalltime racetracks or, as some reviewers complained, whether the accents are accurate or whether such characters exist or John Deere tractors are green instead of red. This is a fatalistic story about the fear of the impoverished elderly, particularly minorities, in 1970, who didn't benefit from the protests of the sixties, who don't want to die a miserable death, but like old Deucey, who said, "This world ain't been so good to me I can't stand the thought of leaving it," or Medicine Ed who commented on one of the characters who died with "no one to mourn or either grieve for him."
This is why I think the literati make a grave mistake draping their stories with post-modern structural techniques that only obfuscate their story. The general population no longer reads poetry and if literary writers insist on pursuing these ridiculous techniques, they too will no longer be read by the general public.
But at the rock-bottom end of the sport, horse racing is a whole other world - a world inhabited by down-on-their-luck trainers and jockeys, loan sharks and crooks, gyps and hotwalkers. This is the world Jaimy Gordon takes on - Indian Mound Downs, where the horses are mostly aging, drugged, or lame and the trainers are as crooked and cynical as they come.
Into this world steps Maggie, a young, college-educated frizzly-haired, naïve girl who has hitched her wagon to her boyfriend Tommy's star - a "young fool" with a scheme to rescue his failing stable. He intends to ship four down-and-out horses there, race them at long odds, take the money and run before anyone knows what's happened. But Maggie and Tommy don't really have a clue what they're up against - jaded and desperate men for whom horses mean nothing and people mean even less.
Jaimy Gordon knows her way around this world and she certainly knows her horses. Each of the four parts of the book is centered on an individual horse - Mr. Boll Weevil, Little Spinoza, Pelter, and the "devil horse" Lord of Misrule. These are horses filled with personality, treading their way into the flying mud with chopping legs and nostrils cavernous and flaring, neurotic as all hell, almost but not quite ready to live up to their potential. The descriptions of the horses and the races they enter and the conditions they endure are among the finest you're ever likely to read.
Ms. Gordon's idiosyncratic people are slightly less developed, mainly because they are down-and-out and trapped. Some of them shine: Medicine Ed, for example, who dispenses drugs to the horses is beautifully depicted and Maggie - and her cruel awakening - is also detailed with fine strokes. So is Two-Tie, Maggie's gangster uncle who strives to be her protector. Others - including Tommy -- are less so.
These lowlifes speak in their own racetrack patois (and it helps to know at least be open to learning this patois); they are limited and restricted, unable to survive without the dust of the racetrack. It's difficult to even think of these racetrack hanger-ons existing in the outside world -- perhaps the one glaring fault of the novel. The characters become secondary to the world they live in, bit players who strut and fret their hour on stage when ultimately, they are mostly doomed.
Tommy reflects: "Now it all falls into place. Before, you thought you knew, and felt your way along blindly. And though this world is a black tunnel of love where the gods admonished you to search without rest for your lost twin, it's also haired all over with false pointers, evil instructions, lost-forever dead-ends."
There is a propulsive energy to Lord of Misrule, a voice that's strong and original, and an intimate knowledge that's in turn poignant, comic, heartbreaking, and suspenseful. The surprise winner of the National Book Award this year, Lord of Misrule brings the reader into the vortex of this world, squeezes tight, and doesn't let go.