Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon
McPherson & Company, Kingston, New York, 2010
Borrowed from my library. Winner of the 2010 National Book Award, on the 2012 Orange Prize longlist.
Somewhere near Wheeling, West Virginia, is a race track called Indian Mound Downs. There horses run in claiming races and owners, trainers, grooms and jockeys try to grab some luck, win a bundle or just get by. This is the world of cheap horse racing, violent and often ruthless. Lord of Misrule follows several characters, and four horses, through a season.
These characters bring their dreams and their histories to the track. There is Medicine Ed, 72 years old, a groom all his life, with an eye for horses and people and a hidden knowledge of “medicine”. Tommy Hansel, a man with a plan. Get in, make a bundle and get out quick. And Maggie Koderer, Tommy’s girl, working as a groom, wondering how she’s ended up here, where she’s going and falling for horses in a way you know will break her heart.
Her hands felt their way blindly along the ridges and defiles of the spine, the firm root-spread hillocks of the withers. She rolled her bony knuckles all along the fallen tree of scar tissue at the crest of the back, prying up its branches, loosening its teeth. And it must be having some effect: when she walked Pelter these days he wasn’t the sour fellow he used to be, he was sportive, even funny. She walked him this morning until the rising sun snagged in the hackberry thicket… From Page 25.
Gordon knows these characters, knows these horses, knows this ugly side of the sport of kings. I sense that she chose her words very carefully, building a sense of rhythm, sometimes trotting, sometimes galloping. The men think like animals, the horses act like men and often there is violence and decay buried in them. This is a dark novel, full of menace and poetry. I enjoyed it.
Not to long ago I read a startling article about horse racing in the New York Times. Lord of Misrule reinforces its sad truth.