When Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule won the National Book Award for fiction last year, the prize seemed to startle no one more than the author. Gordon, after all, has been working quietly away for a long time over in Kalamazoo, and before this book had produced some small press classics that have had mostly cult attention. She certainly didn’t seem interested in making any concessions toward the kinds of fiction that usually win the big awards.
Those of us who had relished her earlier books were not disappointed by the wonderfully quirky Lord of Misrule. In this novel, Gordon has created a down-at-the-heels backwater racetrack in West Virginia called Indian Mound Downs. She has populated it with an often bizarre assortment of characters—a pretty-boy wannabe horseman with a fragile psyche; his girl of the moment who clearly understands horses a lot better than he does; an old black groomer who knows the old secrets for preparing horses; slightly crooked or deeply criminal businessmen who circle the edges of the horse racing world, looking to make a few bucks in ways that most of us could never imagine. Each of these characters speaks the rich, unique slang of the track—a language I knew nothing of before I read Lord of Misrule. Without making any effort to stop and define unfamiliar things, Gordon finds a way to bring us all into the swirl of these words.
And there are, of course, the horses. In her youth, Gordon spent three years working the racetracks, and she knows horses. She can describe a horse or a race in a way that shows both her knowledge and her love. Here’s part of one race with a horse named Little Spinoza:
But Little Spinoza hadn’t waited, they were five lengths behind the worst horse at the clubhouse turn when Little Spinoza opened out, pumping in long glides like a water strider, and closed on the ragged back end of the field. He ate up the two horses who had dropped out of it. What did he want the ones in front for?
Fine as this kind of writing is, Gordon is doing more than a literary version of calling a race. The characters connect with the horses because the horses are a mirror or an extension of their human emotions; the precocious young woman finds that she is involved with the horses and the other characters because “she would have hated to be left out of the trap of flesh altogether.” That trap has the chaos of love and greed, loss and ambition that is the stuff of much of our best fiction, and because of that this book was given the big prize.
Jaimy Gordon reads from Lord of Misrule and talks about the book at the Jewish Book Festival on November 1.