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Photo credit: Brian WiddisLord of Misrule

By Jaimy Gordon 

Publisher: McPherson & Company 

Katie McDonough writes:

Whenever I come across a book that centers on the world of horseracing, I feel a twinge of recognition, of longing. I grew up cleaning rooms at Starting Gate Cottages, my family’s once charming, now decaying cabin-court motel ten miles south of Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York. Some of our guests traveled to the area for short-term construction work or for concerts at SPAC, but the majority came to stay with us for one reason and one reason alone: to go to the races.

Some had spent time in the business. Others were inveterate gamblers. Many were just grown kids whose dads had once boosted them up for a better view of the backstretch. I made their beds and cleaned their toilets every summer until I was eighteen, but I never understood what all the fuss was about. During the racing season, my parents, my younger brother, and I were chained to the motel, working almost around the clock some days to keep up with arriving and departing guests. We went to the track a few times over the years, but I always felt like there was a curtain between me and the action, a secret I wasn’t being told.

Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule is that secret, that peek behind the scenes that I never got as a kid. I stood under the red-and-white-striped awnings and squinted to see the bright white-and-green starting gate at Saratoga, but I never got the chance to go deeper—to be on the other side of the long, white fence of the paddock, to smell the air inside of a hay-filled stall. This is where the real story of horseracing plays out, in hushed conversations and hastily made deals. This is where horseracing lives.

Gordon’s novel is set at the fictional Indian Mound Downs, a rundown West Virginia racetrack that feels like the anti-Saratoga, a place run by monsters and haunted by ghosts, a place where humans are slaves and horses are kings, but only as long as they’re worth something. Its devil-red dust and darkened shedrows bear little resemblance to the sunny Saratoga of my memory, but from what I can tell their guts are the same: money and competition, hope and luck.

[Luck] came to you because you called to it, whistled for it, because it saw you wouldn’t take no for an answer. Luck was the world leaping into your arms across a deep ditch and long odds. It was love, which is never deserved; all the rest is drudgery.

The lives of characters like the toothless, black groom, Medicine Ed, and the “dilapidated hull of a woman,” Deucey Gifford, could only be described as drudgery. They sleep on haystacks and wake in the dark to muck stalls and rub horses that they love like people and could lose in an instant—a claiming race ends with cash in someone else’s hand. But the ones who hold the cash aren’t immune to suffering. Men like Gus Zeno and Joe Dale Bigg are just as lost as the rest, just as needy—the type of people the racetrack calls.

Without a doubt, this is Medicine Ed’s book. It’s his voice that speaks to us, his eyes we use to see. “Medicine Ed, like the boll weevil in the song, was looking for a home.” And everyone here is, and the racetrack is a sort of home. Ed has spent his life at the track; at seventy-two, he’s hoping to get out. But as much as the reader wants that for him, it’s hard to imagine him anyplace else.

This is Medicine Ed’s book, but it’s Maggie and Tommy’s story. The novel opens with their arrival from Charles Town—all eyes on her, a “frizzly hair girl” of twenty-five, and him, her lover/captor with the wild laugh. She is the phantom twin he’s spent his life looking for, the one his mother swore he consumed in the womb. Tommy needs Maggie, and she crumbles at his touch. Theirs is a story we already know.

Each of Gordon’s characters is both good and bad, fair and cruel; try as you might, you can’t completely love or completely hate any of them. And the same goes for horseracing itself. With language like a poem and images like a dream, the novel is a gorgeous, uncensored tribute to the sport, a book like a racehorse that deservedly beat the odds.

As for my question, it’s Medicine Ed who answers:

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. You can’t see through it. It comes down to a person’s beliefs. 

Katie McDonough is Marketing Media Manager at the National Book Foundation. She received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from The New School in 2010, and her work has appeared in Used Furniture Review, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn.

Fiction Finalists That Year: 

  • Peter Carey for Parrot and Olivier in America
  • Nicole Krauss for Great House
  • Lionel Shriver for So Much for That
  • Karen Tei Yamashita for I Hotel 

Fiction Judges That Year: Andrei CodrescuSamuel R. DelanySabina MurrayJoanna ScottCarolyn See

The Year in Literature: 

  • Tinkers by Paul Harding won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
  • Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for literature.  

More Information:

Lord of Misrule is an expansion of Gordon’s short story, “A Night’s Work,” which was selected for The Best American Short Stories 1995

Suggested Links: Jaimy Gordon’s 2010 NBA Page

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