- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2011

By Jaimy Gordon
McPherson & Company, $25 294 pages

When this intriguing novel won the prestigious National Book Award in November, it occasioned a slew of comments having to do with dark horses, coming from behind, and surprise winners, all of which fit both the book and its author.

A professor of creative writing at the University of Western Michigan for almost three decades, Jaimy Gordon became a cult favorite after the 1974 publication of her first novel, “Shamp of the City-Solo” (“Lord of Misrule” is her fourth), a fantasy novel about a young man in a parallel universe. It was the first book published by McPherson & Company, a small press in Kingston, N.Y., that, with one exception, has been her publisher ever since, a fact that also gave rise to the dark-horse, come-from-behind, surprise-winner talk. So let’s hear it for little presses and little-known authors, which isn’t to say that Ms. Gordon was not deserving, for she definitely was.

“Lord of Misrule,” which chronicles the fortunes, for good or ill, of four horses and five humans, is set at a racetrack. But there any similarity to Churchill Downs, the Belmont Stakes or Pimlico most definitely ends. The fictitious track in question, “Indian Head Mounds near Wheeling, West Virginia,” is just the kind of shabby, down-at-the-hoofs track that would appeal to a schemer.

Enter handsome Tommy Hansel with a string of horses, a saddleful of charm, and dreams of a large profit. Tommy thinks he can waltz in with some horses that are better than they look, enter them in claiming races at long odds, and ride away with a pot of money.

With him is his latest girlfriend, Maggie, a frizzy-haired wonder with a deep love of horses … and Tommy. But as Tommy is torn between playing by the rules and winning no matter what, it falls to Maggie to fuel the dream.

Watching this drama unfold are at least two other main characters, both elderly, a lady “gyp” - i.e., cheat - named Deucey, one of Indian Mounds’ many in-stable, and possibly unstable, characters, and Medicine Ed, a crafty old black man who is at least as wise as his years, of which there have been many.

Eventually, they all get caught up in Tommy’s dream-scheme as propelled by Maggie, and it begins to look promising until the arrival of a mystery horse named Lord of Misrule. Just as in “Seabiscuit” and “Secretariat,” it all comes together with a big race at the end. Only in this case, it all comes apart.

Alternating watching and trying to influence the outcome are a handful of other figures, all of whom give new meaning to the term character. There’s Two-Tie, a banned racetrack financier; he’s a good guy. Then there’s Joe Dale Bigg, a trainer; he’s not. Nor are several others, such as Bigg’s son Biggy, who’s been kicked in the head by a horse and shows it, or Breezy, aka D’Ambrisi, who lacks the guts to be as bad as he’d like to be. These lowlifes are described in prose that sounds like warmed-over Damon Runyon.

All of these people and all of the action of “Lord of Misrule” are served up in a narrative bouillabaisse that is often hard to swallow - sorry, I mean follow - given the author’s penchant for flights of fantasy as well as linguistic gyrations, plus some of the least interesting sexual scenes I’ve read in a long time. And her disdain for quotation marks or the use of “she said, he said” further muddles the matter.

What slowed me down to the point of annoyance, however, was Jaimy Gordon’s use of old-timey talk and ethnic dialects, especially in the lines given to Medicine Ed, who is supposed to be one of the book’s admirable characters modeled as he is, said the author in several interviews, on 96-year-old dedicatee Bubbles Riley, a legend at tracks in West Virginia and Pimlico.

On the plus side, readers will be impressed by the verisimilitude of the behind-the-track, inside-the-barn scenes. Turns out Jaimy Gordon, a Baltimore native, knows whereof she writes. After graduating from Antioch College, she spent three years working at West Virginia’s Charles Town Racetrack and Green Mountain Park in Vermont.

I found some of Ms. Gordon’s figurative language strained. For example, of Joe Dale Bigg, she writes, “… the blueblack growth of beard over his jowls … had the look of pepper on white cheese,” or “His thick legs made his blond silk trousers as tight as a pair of good cigars.” Come again?

Despite such overexuberance, there is no doubt that Jaimy Gordon’s capture of the National Book Award was not a fluke. She is a powerfully imaginative and highly stylistic writer whose underground reputation is well-deserved. She should be far better known - and far more often read.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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