Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon (Quercus - September 2011)
There are good books and there are bad books and there are books so far down the racetrack they are like horses for courses. It seems fitting that this is indeed a book about horses. Still, in order to appreciate the writing, you don’t need to know anything about horseracing; nevertheless I would suggest that it definitely helps you to make it through to the final chapter. But if you happen to be urban through and through, perseverance pays off as halfway through the book the hurdles are lowered, the narrative becomes more transparent and the mud stops splattering into your eye. Clearly many literary judges seem to be quite fond of this book and favoured it in the race for awards; Lord of Misrule won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2010 and was longlisted for the Orange Prize. Not a small achievement.
The story is set in Indian Mound Downs, West Virginia in the 1970s; a downtrodden racetrack, an elliptic universe beyond hope, light-years from Royal Ascot. It is utterly deprived of hats, hype, glamour and champagne. So what is left? There are horses with bizarre names and eccentric personalities, and horse-lovers with eccentric names and bizarre personalities. Maggie, mostly referred to as ‘frizzly hair girl’, and Tommy Hansel are the love-hate partnership that provide the spice in the bean pot and the maypole around which all money queries, the betting and scheming evolves. Furthermore there is Medicine Ed, Deucey Gifford, Two Tie, Joe Dale Bigg and Suitcase who all help run the show by more or less ethical means, while Mr. Boll Weevil, Little Spinoza, Pelter and Lord of Misrule are the four-legged wonders who literally run in the races, trying not to break a leg. Without wanting to give too much away, it all leads up to a gambling-bonanza-cum-semi-Noir Black Beauty storyline.
Incidentally the doom and gloom, the desperate struggle to ‘live another day’ is the most charming thing about this book. The crude instinct of survival and existential angst add a certain appeal to this otherwise mundane scenario. There is something deeply American about this book, something reminiscent of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men or Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a sense of a sold-out idealism which I hadn’t really expected to find in the booming 60s and flourishing 70s. The mood is exceptionally well-captured in the character’s slang which seems often like a tired, hopeless outcry of deprivation.
Jaimy Gordon knows how to do the walk and do the talk to pad out her character and enchant a reader. There is much hearty narration throughout the well-disguised narrative. The lingo flows like liquor in the fast lane, lingering here and there like a lullaby of utmost agility—but what remains of the thrill depends on how the content sticks beneath the attention-span and how much just disperses like nervous energy. At times ornate expressions and intentional misspellings crawl under the skin like well-meant flogging, and made-up words aim to tantalise the high-spirited until it all results in a hypnotic chase to the next full-stop. Then again some readers may indeed lap up every syllable of it.
Think me old fashioned but for my part I would have thought it courteous if some basic punctuation had been included to mark out direct speech, especially given the turbulent immediacy of the internal narration. But perhaps the fancy apostrophes would have detracted from the forcefully lowbrow-cum-highbrow image this book is trying to create, or they might have just looked too commonplace, like hoof-prints in the dust.
Despite such details, and everything else, there is a real sense that Gordon knows what she is talking about. Her understanding of horses and racetracks shines through with a matter-of-fact authenticity that can’t be knocked. Sources have it that Gordon herself has shovelled her fair share of horse-manure to boost her pocket-money. If anything it comes to show that the most unlikely life experience may prove handy when it comes to writing fiction. It is indeed Gordon’s uncompromised vision that keeps the story together as there is little else to sustain continuity; the point of view seems to leap vigorously from character to character. This adds to the sense of fragmentation and disjointedness. Although individual chapters are quite striking, it feels as if the book was bound together as a novel as an afterthought. But maybe the reason for this is that, like Finnegans Wake, the book has been forever in the make, or maybe the book had started out as a sequence of independent yet interlinked short stories.
I found the ending to be most disappointing. Not so much because of what happens, which I shall not disclose, but because of the sudden and unexplained injection of moral judgement that gives the final chapters a somewhat biblical component that sits uneasily with the rest. Gordon seems to introduce a new and almost surreal perspective which weakens the image she has so far created.
There is no doubt that this is a highly original and untamed novel, full of surprises and daring. I imagine Gordon had a great time composing her artful sentences, and perhaps competent writing is ultimately enough for a book to be appreciated. And this book is definitely competently written. But as I said: Horses for courses.