Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule caused a sensation by winning one of the nation’s top prizes for fiction in a year that produced Freedom and Great House. A quick tour of Gordon’s novel shows that she deserves the hype. Lord of Misrule tells the story of Maggie and Medicine Ed—two soulful, tenacious adults who get overwhelmed and almost defeated by the fast-paced, seedy world of horse racing at Indian Mounds Down. As these two fighters struggle to get what they want, a cast of unforgettable supporting characters drift in and out and comment on the brutal facts of life. Gordon uses her fictional horse-racing community as a springboard for many quirky, surprising comments on animal behavior, sex, and the physical world. The phrase “sui generis” might have been invented just to describe this book.
Maggie, a college girl, wants to break free from the world of horse-racing. She frequently yields to her somewhat demonic and ambitious boyfriend, Tommy, but she dreams of a life far away from the squalor and violence of Indian Mounds Down. When she sees an opportunity to escape, she takes it. She contemplates a future of writing recipes for a magazine and wonders if she will ever be able to shrug off the memory of the despair and suffering she encountered while working with horses.
Medicine Ed, on the other hand, wants to retire in peace. He has worked with horses for a long time, and he is quite a bit more comfortable with his environment than Maggie is with hers. Can he make enough money to ensure a peaceful, orderly end of life? Can he keep himself above the fray of the racetracks—the many tense conversations, the many fights he cannot help but witness? Like Maggie, he sometimes seems in danger of failing to make it out alive.
Meanwhile, Gordon introduces us to a variety of notable, eccentric men and women who exist on the periphery of the world of Ed and Maggie. Joe Dale is a leering, menacing criminal—a wealthy opportunist who always wears his pants just a bit too tight in the thigh. Deucey, a gay veteran of the racing world, wears her heart on her sleeve and cannot help but occasionally declare her romantic interest in some of the other woman in the neighborhood. Two-Tie, a bit of a loner, wants to look after his niece, but his only meaningful relationship appears to be with his dog, Elizabeth. And Tommy, Maggie’s paramour, is constantly in danger of losing his mind.
One of this novel’s many pleasures is the careful attention it pays to its horse characters. In Gordon’s hands, a horse is as complex as a human. Take the title character, Lord of Misrule, “a small, black, slinky horse who nosed around his stall with a certain junkyard style. Now and then he raised his head to slash vindictively at his hay bag, and sized up the traffic out of the custard white corner of his eye.” There’s also Pelter, a moving, elderly horse who develops a kind of symbiosis with Medicine Ed: “Now the animal [will] stick it out for sheer commonness and mischief, and maybe to hang on longer than Medicine Ed.” Horse and owner cling to life because they are stubborn and tough, and they regard each other with wary affection, like a long-married couple.
Gordon doesn’t just reserve her poetic gifts for descriptions of animals; she also writes about sex with a feral intensity that few other novelists can match:
I want you to capitulate. Along the muscular curve of her buttocks, in the notch between them, she had felt him harden against her. His knees pushed her knees apart and his hand slid down her belly and inside her jeans, pressed at the soft wet rivet that held her limbs together. And then he had speared her on his fingers. She uttered some senseless syllable.
Later, a villainous character says, “When I fuck you, I’m going to tell you the whole time how much I hate you. All the time, like some kinda music you never heard before. You’ve been waiting for something like that for a long time now—am I right or wrong?” A reader sometimes may not know whether to blush, or feel disgusted, or feel turned on, and he or she might end up doing all three things at once.
Gordon’s awareness of the physical world is stunning. Occasionally, you may feel as if you were reading a lyric poem; the language is so dense and unpredictable, you may need to slow down to ensure that you can savor every insight. A field is “stubbled with pale dirty straw like a penitentiary haircut.” A hot day is an opportunity for verbal fireworks:
The sun beat down and by three the red dirt glowed back around each barn and strip of grass like the works of a toaster. The heat was a bullying heat that muffled sound, so that a person saw a brush or bucket fall or a tiechain drop and heard nothing, just a kind of clap of air, a flat toneless echo. Every now and then a sparrow flopped down in the dirt and scratched around. Even the baby sparrows in the eaves gave up, peeped listlessly under the heat as under a strangler’s pillow. Every puddle save the one by the back gate had given up the ghost, and now even that one shrank between hideous cracked lips. Some joker had left a horse’s skull drying beside it. You didn’t want to think where he’d gotten it, the ivory molars still sharp-edged and young.
But then, to try to choose just a few notable quotations from this novel is a fool’s errand. Nearly every sentence offers a startling choice of words. A voice is “fatty yet reproachful, a kind of masculine gravy with little metal shavings.” Anger “pumps black life” into a man’s “wrinkled little face.”
Throughout, Gordon celebrates the fighting spirit—the kind of person, or horse, who simply won’t give up. There is a sense that horse-racing strongly resembles life: For no apparent reason, you are dropped at the start of a long sprint, and it’s up to you to decide what you do with the time you have before you reach the finish line. The novel’s final moments pay affectionate attention to the aging Medicine Ed as he contemplates a less illustrious race: “It’s still another place left for them two to go, even if it is down.” Gordon seems to say, “Whatever you do, keep going…Stay in the race.”
Has this reviewer failed to mention the novel’s stunning twists and its rather impressive body count? Has he overlooked the climactic fight on a half-buried racetrack—a scene as desolate and frightening as anything in Apocalypse Now? It’s evident why a panel of judges chose this novel as the winner of the National Book Award, even if it has attracted just a fraction of the readers who purchased Freedom. Jaimy Gordon is a sorceress, and Lord of Misrule is honest, shocking, and quite possibly different from everything else you have read in a very, very long time.