Monday, February 28, 2011

Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

Lord of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon, was the dark horse winner of the 2010 National Book Award for fiction in December 2010.  It had a very small print run (2,000), and its author was relatively unknown.  Her life has changed.

No wonder.  Lord of Misrule is a gem.  It follows five characters through one year and four races at a rundown West Virginia racetrack.  The main characters are memorable.  Tommy Hansel is the "young fool", who has a scheme to run unknown horses quickly at long odds, make his money and get out.  Tommy's advance team and girlfriend, Maddie Koderer is the "frizzy haired girl" who is swept up by Tommy and, unbeknown to Maddie, is protected by her gangster uncle, Two-Tie.  Deucey Gifford is the old lady gypsy.  Finally, there is my favorite, Medicine Ed, the old horse groom. 

Gordon paints a beautiful portrait of the grittiness of a low stakes racetrack.  Her characters are stuck in a soulless track, looking for escape.  The first few sentences vividly describe what is to come:

"Inside the back gate of Indian Mound Downs, a hot-walking machine creaked round and round. In the judgment of Medicine Ed, walking a horse himself on the shedrow of Barn Z, the going-nowhere contraption must be the lost soul of this cheap racetrack where he been ended up at. It was stuck there in the gate, so you couldn't get out."

The writing is convincing and graphic.  Gordon carefully constructs each sentence.  This is a book to be read slowly and absorbed, not flipped through.  Two minor complaints about the novel : the shifts in perspective are a bit distracting and hard to follow and as someone who knows nothing about horse racing, I felt like I missed a few things.

The grittiness of the book reminded me of The Natural and the beauty and intensity of the writing brought to mind Tinkers by Paul Harding (the surprise 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction).

Recommendation:  It was great to see a small press outsider win one of the most prestigious literary awards in the United States.  Lord of Misrule is a beautifully written book that you should move up to the top of your literary reads.

Other reviews:
The Quivering Pen and Shelf Love.

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