Lord of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon
This is one of those award-winning books (2010 National Book Award winner) that garners attention from the academic ranks and is no doubt the product of the MFA writing mill. For the most part, it works; in fact, it’s an exhilarating read, given its erudite tricks.
The story concerns a young man, Tommy Hansel, who, along with his girlfriend, Maggie Koderer, are hustlers in the underbelly world of horse racing. Tommy takes four failing but still capable horses to a racetrack near Wheeling, West Virginia, in hopes of making some quick money and getting the hell out of Dodge before anyone can claim his horses. Of course, he encounters a host of all-too-human complications, including his own mental state in his pyrrhic quest.
Maggie, it turns out, is the focus of the book: how she deals with her tainted relationship with Tommy, her love of horses, her abandonment of a more sedate and secure life, and how she deals with the quirky, sometimes-dangerous host of characters at this corrupt and downtrodden racetrack.
Author Jaimy Gordon’s approach to the story is to view Tommy and Maggie through the eyes of several of the racetrack hangers-on. Each has a slightly different take on the couple, filtered through each one’s concerns and fears. This is mainstream modernist literary fiction, clearly inspired by works such as Faulkner’s. Gordon has a fine ear for the rural Southeastern dialect and the personalities this quaint dialect evokes in her cast of racetrack characters.
Obviously she’s learned the techniques of fiction writing, and has the gift of character and story. With only a couple of exceptions in the book, she continually pulls the reader into her gathering story and into the lives of her characters. And she knows how to paint her primary characters so that they come to the fore without overwhelming the secondary characters.
My only concerns here aren’t with her characterizations or her story, but with two bits of her technique. In one place she allows the racetrack hangers-on to chatter away to no real end – her purpose here to depict these characters and their interactions. But depicting these seedy types in this way, without having their chatter advance the story, has the effect of bogging down the storyline a bit.
Too, the voices of her stumblebum characters, as they narrate the story, aren’t particularly insightful. The author then has to throw in certain of the narrator's insights, sometimes in all-too-articulate language.
An aside that may help readers has to do with the title: The Lord of Misrule is a horse that enters the racetrack fray late in the game, and in a minor way. I suspect the title connected to such a minor character is her version of a metaphor for the freewheeling, often dangerous manner of racing life at this level, and the chaos it sustains.
All in all , a good read, well executed, but I continue to be surprised at the manner in which such talented writers flout certain strictures of creative writing - to the (admittedly minor) detriment of their work.
My rating: 4-1/4 of 5 stars
Causes Bob Mustin Supports
Native American culture. Education. Creative writing.