Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule is a novel about horse racing at a small time track in West Virginia, where worn-out horses, trainers, jockeys, grooms and an unsavory host of two-bit gangsters run for the last of their dreams. Lord of Misrule is a breed all its own. If what we read gains in popularity because it tells a story about the world in which we live, then Gordon has performed something of a fait accompli with the assumption that her readers, if not a part of that world of horse racing, are at least wannabes.
As wild as Ms. Gordon’s use of language is, she holds a pretty tight rein on where the story is headed. The novel is divvied up into four races, each named for the horse that is expected to win, depending on the betting and doping deals already settled before post time. The first race is Mr. Boll Weevil; second is Little Spinoza; third is Pelzer; and fourth is the title horse, Lord of Misrule. We are not at Sunnybrook Farm and Rebecca is nowhere in sight. Instead there is Medicine Ed a 72 year old groom who is the novel’s mythic and mystic voice; Tommy (The Fool) who mistakenly believes that sex, horses and money are all that’s necessary to control the chaos in his life; Maggie (The Frizzly Haired Girl) who is getting by, falling in love with Tommy, and with horses, but never sure how she arrived at this place; Deucey, the crew-cut “hag” who trains and cares for her own horse; and a cast of petty thugs and gangsters straight out of Guys and Dolls.
The author deftly crab-steps her way through the narrative with omniscient author and second person points of view . It’s the second person narrator, speaking directly to a character, that draws the reader most closely to the characters. Gordon also has an eye and heart for descriptive details a lesser novelist might miss: “Two-Tie picked up Elizabeth’s leash, which nowadays he mainly carried, waiting for her to catch up with him . . . and she followed along after him, toenails tapping as if she was blind as well as old . . .” Sizing up (or down) Little Spinoza’s post gelded condition, the narrator surprises the reader with: An old gelding always seemed to her as complex as Disraeli.”
As in every horse story set at a track, it all comes down to one race and one horse. In this story, it comes down to Lord of Misrule a dark and dangerous old veteran. Gordon names her characters, people and animals, not indiscriminately. Misrule is the last to appear and his presence gives new meaning to race results. The losers are not mourned and the winners can only be called survivors. I doubt if the world of Lord of Misrule is quite our world, but it’s a world worth a visit.