Lord of Misrule

It would help to know  something about horse racing before you read Jamie Gordon’s National Book Award winner, The Lord of Misrule, but, even if you’ve never been to the track, her story will teach you – about horses, racing, and people.  Gordon’s world of horses and racing is raw and revealing –  straight from the horse’s mouth – with manipulation and danger – and little humor.

This is a difficult book to digest.  I found myself channeling Nathan Detroit from Guys and Dolls as I struggled to catch the rhythm of the language with Two-Ties, Deucey, and Joe Dale Bigg.   The characters are tough, their lives tougher, and there is little redemption in the story.  Gordon even lets you into the minds of the horses, at times, but you’ll find no relief there.

Starting with a quick tutorial on “claiming races,” Gordon has Tommy Hansel, a horseman by trade and a new owner of a stable of horses, try to pull a fast one in a race, and fail.  The shady side of horse betting and fixing becomes a recurrent theme throughout the book.

“Tommy’s glamourous plans had turned out to be the standard racetrack yarn…don’t worry about losing the animal – throw a sure winner in the cheapest possible claiming race and cash that big bet instead.”

Deliverance comes to this run-down West Virginia stable with Maggie Koderer, Tommy’s girlfriend, who looks to horse training to restore her dreams and sense of worth.  As a former food columnist for a local paper, she knows nothing about horses, but she’s an ardent novice.  With the help of Medicine Ed, the stable’s old groomer; Deucey, the old lady gypsy handler;  and Alice, the would-be jockey, Maggie defies Tommy and buys a crazy six-year old horse, Little Spinoza, who left a horseshoe mark on his former trainer’s forehead.  Like all the other horses – and the characters in this book – this one has seen better days.

The book is sectioned into four races, each named after a horse, but it’s the last race and the story’s climax that redeems sloughing through the first three.  You’ll  feel the  excitement – during the race and in between.  You’ll cheer them on…not just the horses but the hopeful characters who build their lives around them…

“…A person had to see himself, or herself, as lucky not just once in a while, but plugged into a steady current of luck like an electrical appliance, a fan or a toaster. People who thought they couldn’t lose…Deucy sometimes believed.  You really couldn’t tell what on earth Medicine Ed believed. Tommy’s eyes burned wormwood green with the need to believe. Maggie, would never, ever believe.”

Do you make your own luck or are gamblers doomed to lose to the house?  Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule is a tough bareback ride – if you can hang on until the end.