When Jaimy Gordon’s fourth novel won the 2010 National Book Award, it outdid books by people like Peter Carey, Nicole Krauss and Lionel Shriver. Not many had heard of Gordon. Lord of Misrule is about racehorses. The New York Times summoned up the likely puns and analogues: this ‘come-from-behind victory’ was a ‘Seabiscuit moment’, for a ‘little-known writer with a little-seen book who overcame long odds to capture the prize and, at least for one night, revel in the glory (or swoon out of disbelief).’
Indeed. That is a bit patronising, isn’t it? Gordon’s previous novel, Bogeywoman, had been named as an LA Times Best Book for 2000; before that, there was She Drove Without Stopping, which brought her an Academy-Institute Award from the American Institute of Arts and Letters. She teaches fiction at Western Michigan University and in the Prague Summer Program for Writers. And now, Lord of Misrule has been longlisted for the Orange Prize. Wonder if she’s still swooning.
Misrule is a book about weary horses and weary trainers at a two-bit West Virginia racetrack; its themes are luck (mostly bad), old age, violence and violent sexuality. It creeps along the indistinct border between human and animal. Its backstretch universe abides by a cold, Hardy-esque form of Fate. There’s none of the glory of Gordon’s victory: here, ‘glory’ is perverse, traced on a downward correlative.
Formally, the novel is tight: it is divided into sections titled ‘First Race’, ‘Second Race’, ‘Third Race’, ‘Fourth Race’ and ‘Results’. Within the sections there are chapters, whose narrative perspectives rotate between the principle characters and a second-person, omniscient narrator. There’s Medicine Ed, a 72 year-old veteran groom; Two-Tie, a loan shark; Kidstuff the blacksmith; lead trainer Joe Dale Bigg. But the real narrative thrust comes from newcomers to the track, young Tommy Hansel and his ‘frizzy hair girl’ Maggie. Hansel plans to run four horses who are much better than they look on paper, pick up his money, and escape before anyone’s noticed.
As the couple come up against the racetrack’s arch, delusive old-timers, Maggie’s character moves steadily to the centre of the book. She has quit her job as food columnist for a small newsletter in order to assist Hansel in his plan. She’s not quite sure why, and neither are we, but you soon realise it’s got something to do with her notions of sex, luck and love. There’s this startling paragraph, early on, when she thinks their plot has been rumbled and she wonders how he’ll react when she tells him:
Tommy wouldn’t back out. Tommy might well laugh. Fat risk made his eyes brighten and soften, his forehead clarify, his nails harden, his black hair shine. The way Tommy thought, if you could call that thinking: He had been born lonely, therefore some bountiful girl would always come to him – he required it. Luck was the same. It came because you called to it, whistled for it, because it saw you wouldn’t take no for an answer. Luck was the world leaping into your arms across a deep ditch and long odds. It was love, which is never deserved; all the rest was drudgery. So he might well laugh at this news – just as he laughed at all fools, including himself, who rose to iridescent, dangerous bait, where they could be caught – the same way he laughed, softly, in bed, when she came.
The metaphoric, lyrical, rough-edged prose is pretty breathtaking. It portrays the depth of Maggie’s attraction to Hansel, and the unruly danger of the man. It is worth reading the novel just to watch their lives hurtle across the pages, towards something that we know must be black, and bad, and remarkable.
There’s a flipside to Gordon’s style, however. Stuart Dybek has called her prose ‘profligate’, presumably in a complimentary way seeing as he wrote the blurb for Misrule. The word can mean ‘wildly extravagant’ – and that’s accurate here – but also ‘reckless’ or ‘wasteful’. Thus for every moment of shocking beauty – like when Maggie is grooming their ‘slant-eyed bump-nosed’ horse and ‘for all her stamina, as a human girl she knew she was lazy and unambitious, except for this one thing: She could find her way to the boundary where she ended and some other strain of living creature began. On the last little spit of being human, staring through rags of fog into the not human, where you weren’t supposed to be able to see let alone cross, she could make a kind of home’ – you get rambling sentences and paragraphs that overreach, miss their targets, and damage the overall quality of the book.
Any Cop?: Gordon deserves her success. Misrule is a unique, philosophical and honest piece of work about horses, and the cruel things people do. A lot of the writing is so good that you’ll forgive the unwieldy stuff. And, in a strange way, the prose mirrors the interior lives of her characters: always looking for the next exit from drudgery, often getting close, but never quite making it.