Unlikely fiction winner, 'Lord of Misrule,' takes readers on a strange ride
Jaimy Gordon, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction for her book "Lord of Misrule," speaks at the National Book Awards on Nov. 17 in New York.
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In searching for ways to describe Jaimy Gordon's National Book Award winner, I could resort to her persistent habit of making up words, as in "rayroad spike," "cunjure," "Sadday," "wamble," "draggyfied" or "pityfull" and invent something.
Or I could fall back on those common adjectives such as "quirky," "maddening," "original," "overworked" or "archly mannered."
Either way, I can say with some certainty that "Lord of Misrule" is unlike any novel you'll read this year -- or maybe next, unless that book award inspires others to imitate her.
It's her bizarre, at times original, language that grabs your attention from the start:
"They are naked but scaly, with clothes pushed out of the way of orifices, they come together like insects, claspers, ovipositors, wet vacuoles."
That's her version of a real roll in the hay and about as romantic as she gets. Yet the minute you think Jaimy Gordon is some kind of American Lewis Carroll, she lays down sentences stolen from Raymond Chandler out of Raymond Carver, throws in Damon Runyon, then Elmore Leonard before doing an Annie Proulx impression, all the while changing voice, person, tempo and point of view.
Her scene is found somewhere between Steubenville and Wheeling on the West Virginia side at Indian Mound Downs, a minor league racetrack sometime in the 1970s.
The people are "Guys and Dolls" types with a hillbilly twang and names like Two-Tie and Medicine Ed, living alongside a stable of misfit horses one shoe away from the rendering plant.
The stakes are small, but the consequences are high. Gambling means mobsters, not the "Sopranos" kind, just small-time hoods who like to hurt people when double-crossed.
"Lord of Misrule" is divided into sections named for horses, three of which compete in the climactic race that the book has been building toward. The slight plot is as time-worn as the worn-out horses at Indian Mound, involving a young hustler, his girl, her long-lost uncle and the hood who has it in for them.
Ms. Gordon has an acute ear for the accents and desires of her lowdown characters and a wide-lens eye for the rundown, junk-filled landscape of the river towns and farms. It's an ugly, heartless world of cruelty, insults, money-grubbing, rough sex and fists in the face.
The novelist paints a light coat of magic over the grim squalor. Lord of Misrule is a horse, considered a mark of evil or even the devil himself, brought into the state to build the purse for a special midsummer race.
The hustler Tommy believes he has a horse that can defeat this evil -- the Mahdi, a figure from the Islamic faith. Tommy is the least interesting of Ms. Gordon's characters to whom she grants unusual insights and intelligence that don't ring true.
There's also the "cunjure" of Medicine Ed, an elderly trainer who mixes plants with horse's blood to cook up various potions and believes in ancient superstitions.
As a character, he is Ms. Gordon's biggest blunder, the stereotype of a person of color more in touch with spirituality and magic than white characters.
Two others deserve mention -- Two-Tie, a shadowy money-man and his niece, Maggie, Tommy's lover whose relationship with horses is the most erotic one in the book.
"Lord of Misrule" is not the best novel of the year. It is surely the oddest of the best-publicized and honored books, however.
Ms. Gordon knows her tightly contained world well; she has an unusual, sometimes original, vision of that place, understands its dramatic possibilities and pushes the possibilities of language like a jockey whipping his charge down the homestretch.
But, she's too much in love with her own words and too convinced of the romance of her race track milieu to sell it hard enough to readers.
"Lord of Misrule" was a longshot winner at the National Book Awards, but it's not going to get me to Wheeling Downs or any track very soon.
First Published November 26, 2010 12:00 am