By Andrew Beyer
Friday, November 12, 2010; 12:11 AM
Horse racing has rarely inspired serious fiction. Novels about the sport are usually formulaic (e.g., Dick Francis mysteries) or filled with cliches (e.g., the triumph of an underdog). So it was a shock when "Lord of Misrule," a new novel set at a bottom-level West Virginia racetrack in the early 1970s, was named one of the five finalists for the National Book Award for fiction, a prize that has been won by literary giants such as William Faulkner, John Updike and Saul Bellow.
There are no triumph-of-the-underdog moments in author Jaimy Gordon's book. Her mythical Indian Mound Downs is populated by infirm, battle-scarred old horses and the owners, grooms and trainers who try to eke out a living with them. Some of the characters are noble, in their way, some deranged, some capable of murder and rape, but few of them harbor dreams much grander than winning a cheap race, collecting a small purse and perhaps cashing a bet.
Gordon's name won't be known to racetrack people or even to most avid readers. Since the 1980s she has taught creative writing at Western Michigan University. Her previous novels (the most recent, "Bogeywoman," was about a teenage lesbian mental patient), poems and translations of German literature have won the admiration of her peers but have had little commercial success. Her career path is, to say the least, an unlikely one for the author of a racetrack story.
In her narrative, the once-classy horse Lord of Misrule comes to Indian Mound Downs for a minor stakes race. He is battled-scarred and long past his prime, but at this level of the game he's still a star, and people on the backstretch watch raptly as his van pulls into the track. This is Gordon's description of the scene:
They were all looking for a van like a Chinese jewel box, like no horse van that had ever been seen on a backside, something red and black and glossy, with gold letters, LORD OF MISRULE, arched across each side. All the same when a plain truck with Nebraska plates rolled in . . . they knew who it was. They were watching, though the van was unmarked and dirty white, one of those big box trailers with rusty quilting like an old mattress pad you've given to the dog. The van bounced and groaned on its springs along the backside fence, headed for the stallman's office. Red dust boiled around it. They blinked as it dragged two wheels through the puddle that never dried, the puddle that had no bottom. . . . They peered through the vents when the van went by and saw the horse's head, calm, black and poisonous of mien as a slag pile in a coal yard . . .
The van stopped, woof, down comes the ramp and a kid, unhealthy-looking like all racetrack kids, worm white, skull bones poking out of his skinny head, stood at the top of the ramp with a small black horse that couldn't even stand right: Lord of Misrule . . . rocked on the flat floor of the van like a table with one short leg. And those legs - they were so swelled out from long-ago bowed tendons on both sides that they were one straight line from knee to ankle, drainpipes without contour.
As I read "Lord of Misrule," I was mesmerized by prose like this and intrigued by the accuracy with which the author captured the idiom of the racetrack, the dynamics of backstretch society and the nature of the animals - both their physiology and their personality. How did a university professor know so much about this obscure subculture?
Gordon said she had always envisioned a career as a writer, but after graduating from artsy Antioch College in 1966 she decided that she wanted to have a range of life experiences first. Living in Western Maryland, she worked at a jail in Hagerstown, wrote food articles for the Frederick News-Post and then got a job as a groom and hot-walker at Charles Town Race Track. With her first exposure to the track, she said, "It was love. I loved being around horses and had no fear of them. I liked the racetrack people - plenty of them are generous souls, they're not crybabies, they're not too moralistic, which suited me fine. The raffishness of life there appealed to me at that age." She saw the dark side, too - "bad people who exploited horses ruthlessly"; "old grooms who worked till they couldn't work any more - their lot was kind of tragic."
After three years of working at Charles Town and Green Mountain Park in Vermont, Gordon returned to a more conventional life path - graduate school, teaching, writing. Her racing experiences receded to the back of her mind as she got involved with other interests and projects. But more than 30 years after leaving the racetrack, she started writing her novel - albeit without any illusions. Gordon assumed that this literary venture was going to be "a fast trip into deeper obscurity."
Publisher Bruce McPherson thought otherwise and nominated "Lord of Misrule" for the National Book Award - a long-shot proposition for a tiny publishing house with a little-known author. Both he and Gordon were stunned when they made the final five.
The winner will be announced Wednesday, and Gordon naturally chose the appropriate metaphor to describe her chances. "Could I be more of a dark horse?" she asked. Nevertheless, she has already received unprecedented attention by being a contender, and McPherson's small publishing house quadrupled the planned size of its first printing from 2,000 to 8,000 copies. The author herself may be the one triumph-of-the-underdog story from "Lord of Misrule."