Lord of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon

Purchased at amazon.ca

Lord of Misrule is not just the title of this exceptional novel, it is the name of a race-horse who is a major character in the book. I will admit that I was very surprised when this novel showed up on the National Book Awards shortlist and even more amazed when it won. Having now read the book, and absolutely loving it, I won’t be surprised if 11 1/2 months from now it shows up on my 2011 Top Ten list.

Disclosure: I have admitted previously that I am a sucker for schoolboy novels and foodie novels, but I have not confessed my ultimate fiction love — racetrack novels. Mrs. KfC and I owned cheap racehorses (well, not more than one at a time) for a couple of decades and were regular patrons at the local, not very good, racetrack (actually, it was a lot like Indian Mound Downs, the racetrack featured in this volume). We loved the experience and remember it with great fondness — Lord of Misrule brought back many fond memories of both racing and the incredible characters that we met at the race track and I will confess that I know people who would compare to every character in the book. There are not a lot of novels in the genre (Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven stands out) so I don’t often get to indulge in raving about this kind of work. Stand by, because that is exactly what I am about to do.

Horse-racing is no longer a mass-market sport and for most readers the Kentucky Derby is about all the horse-racing that they know. It is the absolute top of the sport — 20 horses from a crop in the hundreds of thousands race for an impressive prize. Wealthy owners, society connections, lots of TV exposure. Those of us who love horse-racing also love it, but we know there is a vast undercard (that’s horse-racing talk) that is essential for the Derby to exist. Racing may be the Sport of Kings, but most of those who partake in it are anything but royalty. See Damon Runyan for a more realistic assessment.

Even at the very best racetracks, like Churchill Downs where the Derby is run, but also Belmont, Santa Anita and Gulfstream, the “big” races are supported by an undercard and most of those races involve claimers. “Claimers” are cheap horses racing for cheap purses to pay expenses as Gordon helpfully indicates in a pre-script quoting Ainslie’s Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing:

Without claiming races there would be no racing at all. Owners would avoid the hazards of fair competition … The game would perish.

The claiming race changes all that. When he enters his animal in a race for $5,000 claiming horses, the owner literally puts it up for sale at that price. Any other owner can file a claim before the race and lead the beast away after the running. The original owner collects the horse’s share of the purse, if it earned any, but he loses the horse at a fair price.

That is, he loses the horse at a fair price if it is a $5,000 horse. If it were a $10,000 horse, in a race for cheaper ones, the owner would get the purse and collect a large bet at odds of 1 to 10, but the horse would be bought by another barn at less than its true value.

That premise is at the centre of Lord of Misrule and Gordon executes it with exceptional skill. You don’t have to be a serious gambler to see the potential — if you can sneak a $10,000 claiming horse into a $5,000 race and “dirty” the form so it doesn’t look like a $10,000 horse, you have the chance to cash a major gamble at a price much better than 1 to 10 and keep the horse in the bargain. At cheap racetracks around North America, this scam is being played out every day — and this never-ending effort to beat the odds is at the centre of Gordon’s tale.

To keep this “sport” in business, there are plenty of racetracks that are not at all like fancy Churchill Downs or Santa Anita. Indian Mound Downs in the West Virginia panhandle where the author sets this novel is one of them. The horses here are slow, or hurt, or once worth something but not now. Their next stop is the rendering plant and a future in glue, not some pleasant retirement pasture. It is a venue ripe for gambling exploitation. And Tommy Hansel and his rookie groom and go-fer girlfriend, Maggie Koderer, have arrived with four horses to do just that:

And now that he had cash to play and Maggie’s free labor and four ready horses who looked pitiful on paper, the trick was to get in and get out fast. It was Tommy who said so, Maggie had only soaked this stuff up faithfully for months — sitting on the curb of the shedrow writing headlines for Menus by Margaret: ORANGE RUM FILLING RAIDS MARGARET’S TEA RING, MANY LIVES OF THE WORLD’S OLDEST BEAN (no one watched what she wrote at that rag), and gazing up at Tommy more hypnotized than credulous, like a chawbacon at a snake-oil show. Get in and get out fast, he chanted. They had to arrive at a small track unnoticed (small but not too small — it had to have a respectable handle), drop each horse in the cheapest possible claiming race before anybody knew what they had, cash their bets, and ship out again, maybe without losing a single horse.

If you know horse racing (I suspect you don’t), this happens all the time — some shipper has always just arrived and hopes to cash a gamble. Having set that stage, however, Gordon then moves on to create a truly great book. Unlike any other enterprise that I know, the racetrack truly is a self-enclosed world. Once you walk through the gates — either at the front entrance or the backstretch — you have entered a place that has its own sets of rules and hierarchies, with its own characters, and, however powerful and knowledgable you might be outside those fences, you are just another greenhorn when you come in here. And the racetrack also has it own vocabulary and grammar, a dialect that Gordon is very good at. At the track, you would never say “Your horse ran very well in winning”, you would say “He win good”. Gordon knows that dialect.

Consider, for example, Medicine Ed who will become a major character as the novel unfolds:

How long would Medicine Ed last? He had been on the racetrack since he was eight years old. After sixty-four years of this racetrack life he, too, was sore and tired, and like the boll weevil in the song, he was looking for a home. He knew he would always have work, long as he could work. But where was it wrote that he had to rub horses till the day he died? And as for the medicine he could do and which long ago gave him his name, best folks forgot about that, and in these parts so far they had.

Tommy, Maggie and Medicine Ed are only an introduction to the cast of characters in this book — they will be joined by Two-Tie (a bookie), Joe Dale Biggs (the corrupt leading trainer at Indian Mound Downs), Deucy (an aging female trainer who has only one horse) and a host of others. Not to mention the race horses who are every bit as important as the human characters in this book — Mr. Boll Weevil, Little Spinoza, Pelter and, of course, Lord of Misrule. They will all figure in the outcome.

Every one of them (well, not the horses but they have their own motivation to win) is trying to cash a gamble and looking for whatever edge they can find to help produce that result. That’s the entire premise of cheap claiming racing and this novel and there is no way I am going to spoil the story by revealing key details.

If you like horse-racing at all, this is a truly exceptional book. Even if you don’t, I recommend it — Jaimy Gordon has captured a world that really does exist within, but also apart from, the world that we all know and done it in exceptional prose. You are unlikely to describe Lord of Misrule as a study in realism if you don’t know the race track, but let me assure you that is exactly what it is. I opened this book at about 4 p.m. one day, thinking I would read a few pages and set it aside; at midnight the same day, I closed the last page. I can’t wait to open it again — it is a marvelous achievement.

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25 Responses to “Lord of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon”

  1. RickP Says:

    Before I had children, I was a quite a film buff and Roger Ebert was one of the people whose opinion I respected. I once saw a movie called Dark City which I truly, truly didn’t care for. It just didn’t resonate with me. I thought to myself that I couldn’t wait to watch Ebert that week and see him murder this movie. He not only liked it but named it as his best film of the year.

    I had a weird feeling when I saw that you would soon be reviewing this book. I has no idea about your horse background at the time.

    I finished this a few days ago and suffice it to say that I didn’t care for it. I thought the characters lacked depth and seemed very caricatured. Of course, I don’t know this world at all and as per your review, the characters are actually close to what one would find in real life.

    The concept of claiming races was very interesting and I quite enjoyed the first part of the book as I was learning about this. I liked every scene with Two Tie in it and found him to be quite a character.

    I just didn’t relate to Deucey, Medicine Ed or Maggie nor find them to be that interesting. I found Tommy Hansel to be neither good or bad found him simply to be irritating.

    So, as always, I respect your opinion but this one just didn’t work for me. I really did have the Roger Ebert premonition when I saw this listed here.

    I’d be very interested to hear other opinions as I may definitely be in the minority.

  2. Guy Savage Says:

    I haven’t read Lord of Misrule. I’m not into horse racing and I haven’t read the book, but I’m wondering if the contrast in opinions comes from experiencing, in life, these sort of set-ups and characters? So in other words, one person finds it very real and familiar while another does not.

    BTW, Dark City…Lizabeth Scott was seriously under-utilised.

  3. leroyhunter Says:

    I’ve no real interest in the sport of kings in real life, but a lot of fiction set in or around the milieu is great: Runyan (as you mentioned Kevin), Pat Hobby, Chandler, The Grifters etc. I think it’s the “closed world” aspect, with the lingo and nicknames, and the ever-present whiff of somethiing where “beating the odds” shades into outright crime and corruption.

    I like the sound of this, having initially been sceptical. Your review is so enthusiastic that I’m prepared to put it straight on the wishlist Kevin, even allowing for your full disclosure.

    As an aside, there is no shortage of English & Irish writing about horse racing (which still is a mass sport here) but it’s not something I’d be interested in. I think it’s the familiarity and irreedemable lack of charm of places like Uttoxeter, Kempton Park and Punchestown when compared to the distant glamour of Belmont and Santa Anita. Funny what the cultural lense (mostly of course Hollywood’s) will do to your perceptions.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick: I can’t say that I am surprised that you found the book wanting — I did wonder while reading it how it would land with someone who didn’t know the race track. When we hung around there, we used to observe that racetrackers “weren’t quite all there” — which is why some of them seem to be caricatures (because, even in real life, they are). So Deucy and Maggie work for me, because they do remind me of people I knew — but I can’t dispute your evaluation of them as fictional characters. Which means that I think Guy’s comment is on the right track.

    Leroy: UK racing does not have the down-and-out tracks like Indian Mound Downs that the US has — the lesser tracks would compare to mid-level North American venues (I’ve been to more than a few on visits to the UK). The UK also has quite a bit of racing writing, as you note, but most of it seems to be on the Dick Francis mystery model, rather than the “closed world” exploration of this book.

  5. Trevor Says:

    I’ve been anxious to see your review of this, Kevin. I knew you had a soft spot for horse racing, and I felt that your opinion of it would help me know if it was “for real” or not. Now, I’m excited to read it. I am not familiar with horse racing at all, but I’m intrigued by it. This year has been extremely refreshing to me because I found that there are loads of good pieces of fiction being written about the relatively unknown bits of the world, and Indian Mound Downs sounds like a place I’d like to see in fiction.

    By the way, I think I may have mentioned this before, but just in case . . . Maile Meloy’s first collection of short stories has a great one that features a claiming race: “The Stakes Horse.” I’m interested to see if Meloy gets it as right as you show Gordon did.

  6. Trevor Says:

    In my last line above I failed to mention that I’ll need you to tell me if Meloy gets it right.

  7. Shelley Says:

    This might be a good time to remind people who haven’t read it yet that the book describing the most famous racehorse in the era I write about, Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, is in a league of its own.

    “People who aren’t all there”–that’s a nice definition of caricature.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: Thanks for that pointer about The Stakes Horse. Given Meloy’s Montana background, where the race horses are fast quarter horses rather than regally-bred thoroughbreds, it should be interesting. And, again in the interests of full disclosure, I should note that when Mrs. KfC and I did own horses a feature of every autumn race meet was the arrival of a couple of Montana “shippers” in Calgary, bent on the same mission as Tommy and Maggie in this book. I also have to admit that I cashed a few tickets on their enterprise as well.

  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It sounds distinctly like a kind of heist novel. It also sounds a lot of fun.

    Like Leroy, I didn’t think I’d take to this one (I almost didn’t read the review in fact), but it’s gone straight on the wish list. It sounds very entertaining indeed.

    On another note, Ebert had Dark City as his film of the year? It’s always mystified me how highly people regard that movie, I never really took to it and I’m into crime and sf. If I weren’t I struggle to see how it would have any appeal at all. I don’t think it’s bad, for me it’s a classic three star movie. Still, along with RickP I’m clearly in a minority on that one.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I’m not sure how you will take to this one — I do think you will find some “heist” characteristics in the cast. They do wake up everyday in search of a gamble to cash.

    And I can’t make any comment on Dark City as I had never heard of it (film is not really my thing) until the comments here.

  11. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Well, worst case I hate it Kevin, and then we have the interest of a counter-review at my blog. That would hopefully prompt some debate so I could certainly live with that outcome.

    Actually, the real worst case is I’m indifferent to it, but that sounds unlikely here thankfully.

    How long is it out of interest?

    On Dark City, I just thought RickP might like to know he’s not alone on that one.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: 294 pages of largish, well-spaced type on decently-sized pages in the edition I had. Gordon’s narrative style is straight-forward — even though parts of it are in racetrack dialogue, that isn’t hard to follow (unless you are a stickler for proper tense and grammar — it does have vague echoes of Selvin in a way and you have already had some exposure with Runyan). I read 120 pages one afternoon, having picked it up intending to read about 25 just as a taste — after a decent dinner, settled back in and finished the rest that evening. I will be interested if you find any elements of Runyan in it. It does feature similar kinds of hopeless characters, looking for an edge, but definitely does not have his unique voice (let’s face it, no one does).

    Oh and it also has short chapters, which suggests it would be a useful commute read, if your new residence still means the commute is a reading experience.

  13. Max Cairnduff Says:

    My commute is better for reading actually. It’s now 45 minutes with a seat, rather than 20 minutes without a seat. I’m powering through the Gordon Burn I’m reading (though it’s sheer quality helps with that too).

    This sounds like the kind of thing I’d like to try. Besides, as you know I’m a Runyon fan and this clearly comes with a story. It’s still in hardback, but once it hits paperback next year I’ll pick it up.

  14. kimbofo Says:

    How interesting. I didn’t know about your horsy background.

    I have a horsy background too: I was deputy editor of a quintessentially British equestrian magazine (which shall remain nameless, but if you email me I’ll reveal all) for several years, and even though I did not know anything about horses, I learned the ropes quickly and was dragged to many events, mainly horse trials (eventing), horse shows (show jumping) and the odd horse race (Cheltenham gold cup).

    Horse racing is still very popular in the UK and Ireland, but it’s exclusively thoroughbred, with big bucks, prestige and class priviledge attached. Of course, Australia is very horsy too, and what other nation comes to a grinding halt and has a public holiday for a horse race (the Melbourne Cup)??

    As for the book, I think I’d probably quite enjoy it — and would certainly appreciate the horsy references. I’ll keep an eye out for it. Thanks for the review — and your personal take on it.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    kimbofo: Gordon’s racetrack is far removed from the class of the equestrian world, but I suspect you will find the horses (who are very real characters in the book) have their own special appeal since you know something about the breed. I don’t know Australian thoroughbred racing well, but I get the impression that it is somewhat closer to the North American version than UK racing, particularly in the less densely populated areas of the country. There is still a frontier spirit (including the desire to find an edge) that is very much a part of these small-time racetracks.

  16. Kerry Says:

    I am not sure whether this would have pulled me in, but now you have me intrigued. Plus, it is on the longlist for the 2011 TOB, so by reading it, I might be one closer to having read all 16 in time for the tournament…..

    I think I will enjoy the book more knowing, in advance, that the characters are “realistic” rather than “cartoonish”. Having never been to a horse race, I may have made the mistake some others have made in assuming people couldn’t really be like they are represented in this book. I probably am guilty of too often presuming that characters unlike anyone I know are unrealistic when, in the setting of the book, perhaps they were.

    At any rate, I will not have that problem with this book because I have it on reliable authority that the characters are combed from the real world.

    (Your enthusiasm for horses and racing is infectious.)

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: Today’s NY Times had an excellent article (link here ) on Gordon and the success of this book — I also think the writer of the article must know a little bit about the racing world given the perceptiveness of some of the references.

    Almost as interesting as Gordon’s history and thoughts is the story of her publisher — a one-person operation (even Joanne Skibrud’s publisher of the Giller winner, The Sentimentalist, is a two-person shop). The first press run was 2,000 and he was worried about stepping up to 8,000 when it hit the National Book Award shortlist. That’s about the same numbers as Skibsrud’s Canadian publisher had before the book won and a deal with a larger publisher was struck — and the Canadian market is only one-tenth the size of the American one. Both are timely reminders that the literary fiction business is a pretty small one. I suspect with the expansion of e-books publishers like these two will represent what the future literary fiction physical book world is going to look like. There will still be lots of physical books available (indeed, probably produced with higher qualities than now by artisanal publishers) but you are not going to be seeing them on the shelf of your local bookstore (after all, 2,000 copies of Lord of Misrule amounts to all of 40 copies per state).

  18. Kerry Says:

    Thanks for that link, Kevin. That is an interesting back story to the novel and the publisher. And 2,000 copies is a pretty small print run. Your prediction about the future of the literary book world (few, but high production value, physical copies) will probably become the norm. The physical object may become more of a collector’s item as many people switch to reading on things other than paper. McSweeney’s may be something of a model of the future.

  19. Trevor Says:

    I started this on my commute this morning, Kevin. I’m not terribly far into it, but I think I can put to rest the idea that one must know about horses and horse racing to enjoy it. In fact, I’m surprised at just how enjoyable it is (a lot) to one as ignorant as I am in such matters.

    Any update on when you’ll read the Meloy short story?

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Half in Love, which has The Stakes Horse in it, arrived a few weeks ago (as did A Family Daughter. Given that that is all the Meloy I have left to read, I’ve been saving them. Now that Lord of Misrule is attracting some attention again (it lost in the opening round of the Tournament of Books today — the judge didn’t take to the horse racing language or world), I’ll break precedent and get to it in that particular story in a day or two.

  21. Jenny Says:

    cross-posting from the TOB page (neighbors73):

    As you already know I really hated what I read of this book. I read the first section, through the first race, and found it literally unreadable. I see others didn’t find the horse-racing as much of an impediment as I did—but after reading your review, I’m now I’m wondering if there’s another angle.

    I don’t care much about sports. I know nothing about horses. But maybe more importantly, I have *never* placed a bet in my life—at a poker table, on a sporting event, or even on the Oscars. Outside of the occasional scratch off lottery ticket (20 years ago!), pumping a few bucks into a slot machine when we were in Vegas (8 years ago!), or throwing 5 bucks into my office’s March Madness pool, I literally have no idea what it is to gamble and make wagers. I guess if I were to spend some time thinking about it, I could figure it out. But all that business about “claiming races” is just more words without meaning. You said it was helpful for Gordon to quote from the Thoroughbred Racing Guide, but I’ve read it over a few times, and it’s not that helpful.

    In other words, there’s *no* entry point for me in this book. There’s lots of movie analogies upthread, so I’ll make my own. I’m a teacher. Maybe 10 years ago, a movie came out called “Election” with Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick. I went with my husband and had the bizarre experience of laughing throughout the whole movie, of finding it painfully funny, yet I was often the only person laughing. I’ve met people who have liked it, sure, but maybe it’s just better when you know the vernacular…or at the very least a passing acquaintance with it.

  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Jenny: Well, I did confess at the very start that I wondered how my own experience influenced my reaction to the book. :-) And I would certainly agree that never having placed any kind of gamble would be an even bigger barrier.

    One of the things that I did learn from the racetrack is that it is an absolutely self-contained world — most of the people working there simply could not survive anywhere else. As such, it has its own language and hierarcy and everyone from “outside” enters as a raw greenhorn (the Premier of Alberta owned racehorses when we did and spent quite a bit of time at the track — he was just another rookie as far as people there were concerned). It’s Gordon’s ability to capture that that really impressed me and, I hypothesize, also impressed those who don’t know the track but still like the book.

    All of which is not to say that I think you should like the book or even give it another try. If it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work (and I note that you haven’t criticized those of us who do like it or the author, for that matter). I think your movie metaphor/explanation is dead on.

    So by all means move on to a book that does suit your tastes and is a better investment of your valuable time.

    • Jenny Says:

      One of my favorite things about the TOB is seeing how other people read books. I think it’s fascinating to see how others judge a piece of writing—what pulls them in, what pushes them out. I think you mentioned it on the TOB page today, in fact, it’s the commentary that makes it interesting. (Something I try very hard to convince my students of, but being 7th graders, they just aren’t that convinced. They are still so sure there’s a “right” answer.)

      I just finished Model Home, so I’m off to update my picks for the week!

  23. RickP Says:

    This is an interesting book for discussion. I didn’t enjoy it but I have to admit that I quickly concluded that the characters were caricatures. Since I reached this conclusion rather quickly then it had a huge effect on my perspective.

    Kevin’s review was posted after I read the book. The review and even more so the subsequent posts definitely changed my perspective. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I’d had even a slightly different perspective.

  24. Trevor Says:

    After a busy week, I finally finished this last night, Kevin. I didn’t love it as much as you did (I’m sure the lack of personal experience is the main reason), but I did enjoy it tremendously. I got slowed down in pages 50 – 100 because I was struggling with the perspective. It took me quite some time to realize who the characters were in each other’s perspectives. Still, I wouldn’t change it. Gordon’s ability to create these characters from their vernacular is incredible and, I think, unique. I also loved the horse races and the desperation of the characters. Furthermore, I read the last 150 pages in a mad dash, enjoying it all the way through.

    Like Jenny, I’m not a gambler, but I didn’t have as much trouble understanding the claims races and why they’re essential to the sport. It was exciting to dig into that a bit and see how it affects those involved, even in the cheapest races with the most broken down horses. Thanks to the claims races system, these races are still filled with drama and excitement. That system is certainly central to this story.

    I’m anxious to try more of Gordon’s work and have most, I believe, at hand. She seems to be quite unique in contemporary literature.

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