Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The World of Horse Racing

Lord of MisruleLord of Misrule 

by Jaimy Gordon


“Her hands felt their way blindly along the ridges and canyons 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 had walked him this morning until the rising sun snagged in the hackberry thicket. As they swung around the barn, she took a carrot from her pocket and gave him the butt and noisily toothed the good half herself. He curvetted like a colt, squealed, and cow-kicked alarmingly near her groin. Okay, okay, she said, and handed it over. She was glad there was no man around just then to tell her to show that horse who was boss. When they were back in the stall and she turned to leave, she found he had taken he whole raincoat in his mouth and was chewing it--the one she was wearing. She twisted around with difficulty and pried it out of his mouth. He eyed her ironically. Just between us, is this the sort of horse act I really ought to discipline? she asked him, smoothing out her coat. I simply incline to your company, he replied.” - Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule 

From the opening metaphor of the hot-walking machine at Indian Mound Downs to its final pages, this novel is filled with characters, human and animal, whose lives intersect in dramatic encounters. The setting is the world of horse racing. Like the plays of Shakespeare or the novels of Dickens when they portrayed the lower classes, the story is set in the small time backwater of the claims stakes with bit players, the subculture of grifters and ne’er-do-wells whose lives center on a venue that obviously has never and will never bring them success. They include the handlers, owners, and wannabes along with gamblers, backers, and assorted hanger-ons. They have names like Two-Tie, Medicine Ed, Kidstuff and Deucey, and they’re capable of speaking a kind of racetrack patois occasionally reminiscent of Damon Runyon characters: “So I want you should write me a race, well, not me personally, fellow from Nebraska, kid I used to know back when—actually I used to know his mother…She was very good to me. Alas, I fear I did not return the favor like I should have.” At the center of the novel is Tommy Hansel, a horse trainer with a get-rich-quick scheme that he feels cannot fail. He plans to enter “sure-fire” winners in claiming races, benefit from the long odds, then get out of town quickly. "I tell you a secret, horse racing is not no science.  Some of em tries to make it a science, with the drugs and the chemicals and that, but ma'fact it's more like a religion.  It's a clouded thing."(p 83)
Nothing, of course, goes according to plan, especially since everyone seems on to his scheme, and the horses aren’t as cooperative as Tommy would like them to be. Complicating the issue is the quirky, intelligent Maggie Koderer, new to the horse-race business but nonetheless Tommy’s love. Maggie is college-educated but is drawn to the seamy underbelly of the track and the broken-down beauty of the horses.

The best aspect of Jaimy Gordon's fine novel is the portrayal of the racing milieu. The atmosphere is a presence that is strong enough to smell. The characters are developed through small vignettes through which their personalities gradually emerge. Gordon structures the narrative around the four horses and she seamlessly moves the reader from one narrative consciousness to another without being manipulative or intrusive. The races themselves are described with a tour de force of energy and spirit. The exceptional writing and idiosyncratic characters give the reader entry into another world and make this a delightful, engaging, and even award-winning read.

Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon.  Vintage Books, 2011.

2 comments:

Parrish Lantern said...

Not a great fan of horse racing, so not sure if this is my kind of read but it does sound appealing

James said...

Thanks for your comment. Great writing and interesting characters raise this novel above the ordinary.