Friday, February 11, 2011

Lord of Misrule: Review

Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon opens with "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." That hot-walking machine provides the metaphor for the cheap claiming race track at the rock-bottom end of the sport of kings.

Gordon's National Book Award winner is all about the world of the cheap race, down-on-their-luck trainers, jockeys and owners, and the horses that are literally on their last legs. Tracks like this are where racing folk go when they have nowhere else to go. Into this world comes horseman Tommy Hansel. He has a plan to change his luck and get him and his horses back into racing as a money-maker. His idea is to bring four unknown horses into Indian Mound Downs, have them run in the cheap claiming races at long odds, cash his bets, and "get out fast" before anyone notices what he's done. However, in a world that also includes loan sharks, small-time gangsters, and savvy former trainers, things don't always go as planned. Part of Hansel's luck depends on his girlfriend, Maggie--but even he doesn't foresee the way her luck will run.

This is an interesting book. I noticed several blog reviews which mentioned the dialect and how difficult it was to get into the book because of it. The dialect didn't really give me trouble--although I do find it a bit inconsistent at times. What I found most difficult was getting used to the rhythm of the writing itself. It took a while before I got the feel of it. There would be long almost-lyrical passages of gorgeous writing and then, all of sudden, nothing. It reminded me of the first races of two of the horses, Mahdi and Little Spinoza. Each horse had a beautiful run at the start of their race. Mahdi running like no one knew he could and then all of a sudden getting distracted, slowing up, and getting beaten at the finish. Little Spinoza taking off like a shot, running himself out, and just quitting. The break in the continuity of the writing mirrored those races--which made me wonder if this was deliberate. Was Gordon trying to give us the feel of a failed race in her very writing style? It certainly seemed so.

One portion of the book that disturbed me--the idea that the key to pleasure is pain. The relationship between Maggie and Tommy is built on this concept and Tommy absolutely believes that this is the key that "unlocks" all women. And there is a carry-over to the horses. Many of the horses running in these races are in pain somewhere--in their feet, in their legs, sometimes in their apparent fear of the racing itself. But they are represented as breaking through the pain (or using the pain) to reach the pleasure of the run--particularly Lord of Misrule in the final race.

Gordon's use of imagery and metaphor is a bit uneven--at times she's dead-on with description ("his dapples came up like god's golden fingerprints") but then she can turn around and use one like this: "Natalie, the New Rochelle chainstore divorcee, with her big pink open mouth like a toilet seat." And I definitely wish an editor had convinced her to use punctuation for her dialogue (no quote marks, ever). But
overall, a captivating book--particularly once I found the rhythm in the writing. The story is compelling and I found myself rooting for the horses and even more for Maggie. Three and 3/4 stars--verging on four, but not quite.

{Read primarily for the Take a Chance 3 Challenge for category #2. Suggested and loaned by a dear friend.}

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