Jaimy Gordon won the 2010 National Book Award for her masterpiece Lord of Misrule, and, despite the obligatory New York Times review and profile after the fact, she is still hardly known. In a bit of good timing, the novel, which takes place in a crumbling West Virginia horseracing track, Indian Mound Downs, was nominated for the NBA the same week it was published. Before receiving the award, there were reviews by Jane Smiley in the Washington Post, in the trade magazine Daily Racing Form — “Little-known Author Produces Gem of a Racing Novel” — and nowhere else. (Who can say what obscurity Lord of Misrule would have wallowed in had it been published in, say, February instead of November?) At a reading last week at McNally Jackson, the 25 or so chairs, about one quarter empty, were a frustrating testament to Gordon’s undeserved anonymity.
“I’m not drawn to the racetrack because I’m a moralist,” Gordon, 66, told the small audience in a straight, unemotional voice. She is skinny and tall with a crown of frizzy hair, certain strands falling over her pale face, which is also covered by a pair of large spectacles. Indeed, there is hardly a hint of morality throughout Ms. Gordon’s disturbing fourth novel.
Lord of Misrule is separated into four sections, each concentrating on a different claiming race, which means that when an owner enters his horse into a race for a fee—$1500 at Indian Mound Downs—the horse is being put up for sale at that price. Naturally this creates a network of deception. More expensive horses are put in the inexpensive races at long odds; fledgling horses are bought and sold and bought back like cheap drugs.
“Nothing could be more disorderly,” Gordon said at the reading, “than a racetrack, especially a cheap racetrack where everybody is trying to take advantage, everybody is trying to fool everyone else. It’s the lying capital of the world, but everyone is doing it. None of that is written in the rulebook.”
Just as the racetrack is chaos incarnate, Gordon’s novel effectively throws out literary convention. The structure is not linear but more of a coil. There is no real progression (though the pace of Gordon’s writing is as quick as a horse out of the gate) because there is no lesson learned, no moral. We are never quite sure who is alive or dead by the end of each race, or whether certain scenes are some imagined psychosis. We are rarely even aware of what time of day it is (with sentences like, “Neither of them has much future, even if they never ran into trouble like this,” Gordon’s writing always suggests blackest night). The pages themselves are a splattering of text, with many of the visual cues a reader takes as guidance through a narrative — notably in Gordon’s case, quotation marks—missing.
But part of the story’s ambiguousness comes from the reader’s unwillingness to believe the events are part of any story, even a fictional one. Indian Mound Downs is like hell itself has sprouted out of the West Virginia panhandle and come to take vengeance on a people led astray: Tommy Hansel a psychotic drifter who comes to the track to make money fast then skip town; his girlfriend, the maternal Maggie Koderer, intelligent and sexy, but in way over her head; Medicine Ed, the 72-year old groom who has lived and worked at the tracks since he was six, using voodoo powders on a horse to make him win, only for the horse to—invariably—die shortly after. The horses are cheap and malnourished, the grounds of the track are scattered with heaps of manure, and people subject one another to the same kind of brutal punishment as the animals in the story, quite literally: They are bound and chained to stables, fed doses of acepromazine; even physically they resemble animals more than human beings. Take this passage, a mostly joyless sex scene between Tommy and Maggie that reads more like a murder, but still manages to be alluring:
In an almost soothing gesture his fingers circled her wrist, his thumb pressed deep into her palm, curled it, flattened it again, brought the hand down behind her, and suddenly he was binding both her hands together with the leather shank, then the chain. She heard the double-end snap. He had hooked her to the wall…He held his palm over her mouth, and she thought more than said: Yes. No. Yes.
Compare that with the warm, romantic language Gordon uses to describe Maggie’s first encounter with one of the horses, Pelter:
His shoes screeked on the diamond frets of the aluminum ramp and she pressed her hand on the warm rump to steady it, raising a hand-shaped dust mark on the velvety nap…Dark bay, a dense nut brown with black mane, black ear points and tail, and gleaming black knees, ankles and feet. She liked especially the shallow, faintly darker gulley that deepened over his spine just above the tail, dividing the hindquarters into plum-like lobes. Now she pushed her nose into his hip and smelled him.
One could interchange the horses for the humans in the novel and end up with a book that is no less troubling. Which is to say, all significance goes back to the racetrack but the racetrack serves as a metonymy for the world at large. Lord of Misrule is not an easy book to read—no novel that jumps back and forth so nonchalantly between sadism and pleasure could be—but it deserves to pull Gordon up from the inattention she has suffered in her 30-year career. By focusing on a seemingly insignificant group of individuals Gordon unearths all the evil, and some of the good, people are capable of.
“I do think I see good and evil wrestling with each other all the time,” Gordon told her audience, more casually than the statement called for. “I don’t find my way to a comforting final answer. The whole idea of luck and fortune is very double, cyclical, turn this inside out, and it’s the other kind of idea. It’s the way that I feel about horseracing and I suppose about life in general. It asks so much of us. We’ll die. If we try too hard while we’re alive, we’ll die of that. And that’s what we ask of horses all the time. On the one hand I can see that it’s cruel and tragic, on the other hand I love it. It’s beauty to me.”