Lord of Misrule
By Jaimy Gordon
Reviewed by Tom Carrico
Lord of Misrule is the third novel by Jaimy Gordon. It won the 2010 National Book Award for Fiction. It is a wonderful novel which explores the world of “small time” horse racing on out of the way tracks in West Virginia. The strength of the novel lies in its colorful characters. On page 1 we are introduced to Medicine Ed, a veteran groom who is the “glue” that holds the story together, even though he is not the main character. He is a veteran of the racing life, has seen it all, and provides keen observations throughout the entire novel. The main characters are Tommy Hansel and his girlfriend Maggie Koderer. Tommy owns several horses, none of which would be mistaken for a thoroughbred. They are, however, good enough to be entered into claiming races in rural West Virginia. In a claiming race, any owner can claim another’s horse prior to the race for a $5,000 price. The original owner takes the horse’s winnings and the five grand but loses the horse. Tommy hopes to parlay his group of horses into a hefty sum using some chicanery and deception.
Maggie, a former recipe writer for a small town newspaper, initially doesn’t know much about horses. She does know that she loves Tommy and follows him to West Virginia. She has contributed a modest inheritance and sold her mother’s antique dining room table to help underwrite Tommy’s plans. She becomes very good at handling the horses, coming under the tutelage of Medicine Ed as well as a trainer named Deucey, described as “a buzz-cut crone” and “a dilapidated hull of a woman with wrestler’s muscles and a bulge at the waist of her filthy undershirt”. These characters, as I mentioned, are colorful. Veteran horse trainers in the area catch on to Tommy Hansel’s plans and concoct a scheme of their own.
Each chapter culminates in a race. During each chapter new characters are introduced, including veteran horse trainer Joe Dale Bigg, a loan shark with mob ties named “Two Tie” (he always wears two bow ties simultaneously) and a blacksmith named Kidstuff. Complications ensue when Joe Dale becomes attracted to Maggie, Tommy seduces a woman in another town in order to acquire more money and Two Tie decides to foil Tommy’s get-rich-quick plans by bringing in a “ringer” horse named Lord of Misrule for the final race. Tommy and Maggie (with the help of Deucey) have prepared their best horse, Pelter, for this high stakes claims race which now includes Lord of Misrule. Bettors line up on both sides of the battle and the race is run with surprising results.
This novel definitely has its merits. The characters are superb and the visual images the author creates are very well done:
“And now Tommy was backing Pelter out of the van – he was a long horse and had a long way to come. His shoes screeked on the diamond frets of the aluminum ramp and she pressed her hand on the warm rump to steady it, raising a hand-shaped dust mark on the velvety nap. Pelter had the commonest coloring for a racehorse, which was, to Maggie, also the most beautiful: dark bay, a dense nut brown with black mane, black ear points and tail, and gleaming black knees, ankles and feet.”
Lord of Misrule has been criticized by some reviewers as being “good but not great” and unworthy of the accolades it has received. My only complaints are that the author wrote all of the dialogue without quotation marks and often it was difficult for me to decipher who was speaking. The plot also gets buried at times in all of the lush description. The pace of the book is slow until the race scenes appear and then the writing gallops along with the horses. Lord of Misrule is a very intriguing read. If you are a horse person you will definitely enjoy this book. If you are a fan of well written prose, this is your book. If you’re looking for a real page-turner, however, look elsewhere. This is not your book. Whether this is the best fiction work of 2010 probably is debatable, but the National Book Foundation is very good at picking exceptional books, so I’ll trust their judgment that Lord of Misrule represents the best of the 302 novels they considered.