Lord of Misrule is Jaimy Gordon's back-of-the-house view of small track horse racing. It is not a pretty view – everything is crooked, crippled, rusty, or staved in at Indian Mound Downs. The horses are burned out; the grooms, trainers, and jockeys are barely grubbing by; and even the crooks are two-bit.
The story is vaguely set in the early 1970s and begins when frizzly-haired Maggie crashes through the back gate of a third-rate West Virginia race track, trying to find stalls for her boyfriend's meager string of horses. She falls in with Medicine Ed, an illiterate black groom whose old-school ways include nice touches like braiding a horse's mane as well as dubious tricks like mixing up a batch of "goofer dust" before a big race, and Duecey, a hard-bitten sad sack of an owner/trainer who sleeps in the stall with her horse.
The book was a little hard to get into because Gordon goes for authenticity over clarity, using undefined racing slang and realistic dialog. Also, the point-of-view moves among several characters and the narration switches between an omniscient third-person narrator and second-person narrative by Maggie's boyfriend, the increasingly crazier Tommy. These stylistic choices may trip up the reader but they add to the overall mood and, ultimately, the quality of the book.
Less forgivable is Gordon's choice to omit quotation marks from the dialog. Left unmarked, spoken words mingle with unspoken thoughts in a way that may have been meant to evoke a stream-of-conscious atmosphere but comes off as an annoying distraction.
Despite these obstacles, Lord of Misrule is a terrific book with a story and characters than linger. There is a strong but loosely woven plot that leads to an exciting showdown and a satisfying ending. It is a dark horse that deserved to win the National Book Award.
This review was first published on the Internet Review of Books, an indispensable resource for readers.
I read this as one of my two National Book Award choices for the Battle of the Prizes, American Version, Challenge.
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