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'Lord of Misrule' headed for winner's circle?

By Jane Smiley
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; C01

LORD OF MISRULE

By Jaimy Gordon.

McPherson. 294 pp. $25

There are racetracks and there are racetracks, and in all eras, they are worlds apart from the world most of us live in. The racetrack in Jaimy Gordon's "Lord of Misrule" is a half-mile oval only tangentially in the same game as Churchill Downs or Santa Anita, but even though Bing Crosby or Penny Chenery may have never been to a place like Gordon's fictional Indian Mound Downs, chances are some horses they knew would recognize it. Indian Mound Downs is the last stop and the lowliest venue; the horses who run there are expected to be drugged and lame, while their trainers are expected to be crooked. All forms of cheating and violence against people and animals are so routine that anything unusual, like a horse with talent, sparks fear.

Into this world comes an innocent, Maggie Koderer, girlfriend of Tommy Hansel, a peripatetic trainer who has been sent to Indian Mound with a string of possibly superior horses to win some purse money and get some experience. Maggie and Tommy are young and good-looking, and the old groom, Medicine Ed, expects that they will come to grief. The only question is how.

I first encountered the material in this novel in 1994, when I was judging for "Best American Short Stories" (1995). The judging was blind, but I remember being struck by how the easy, colloquial tone of "A Night's Work" (first published in the Michigan Quarterly Review) unfolded the dramatic action. Gordon, who was born and raised in Baltimore, has since published a well-regarded novel, "Bogeywoman" (2000), about a teenaged girl who makes trouble at her summer camp by emerging as a lesbian.

That novel was notable for its narrative panache. As befits a writer who has been pondering her material for at least 15 years, Gordon has completely mastered the language of the racetrack, and formed it into an evocative and idiosyncratic style. "Lord of Misrule," a finalist for Wednesday's National Book Award for fiction, abounds with observations and aphorisms about horses, money and luck. It's replete with the rhythm and wisdom of this way of looking at life, but Gordon has thought so thoroughly about her characters that each voice dips into racetrack lingo in a distinctive way. It is an impressive performance.

She has an eye for a horse, too. Her four horse characters - Mr. Boll Weevil, Little Spinoza, Pelter and Lord of Misrule - are bursting with personality. I wish my favorite were Pelter, the horse with both talent and good sense, but really it's Little Spinoza, son of a great stallion, too neurotic to run a decent race but always tempting owners and riders into thinking he will finally make something of himself and them. "By the time they turned into the paddock," Gordon writes, "Little Spinoza looked offended and suspicious, and after the tattoo man rolled up his lip-naturally he didn't like for anyone he didn't know to poke around his mouth-his eyes opened wide. Wide and round and blank."

Gordon seems to adhere to my sports rule, which is that there are no unimportant races. Every race in these pages is strangely dramatic, no matter how cheap, and the races she describes are not only cheap, but also corrupt. Maybe the key is that the horses don't know that they are not supposed to try, and so they run themselves to the edge of their capacities just because they've been asked to. The result is that "Lord of Misrule" is a very somber novel, easy to like but hard to take. Maggie Koderer's innocence is there to be destroyed; Tommy Hansel's good looks and nice clothing are a very bad omen. Even Medicine Ed, who has both years of experience and extra powers, is trapped. When the racing is fine and the money is good, still he knows: "The little hairs stand up and wave on the back of Medicine Ed's neck."

One problem is that Gordon's chosen form, which is to tell her story through several alternating points of view, allows for immediacy but not for perspective. The wisdom these characters offer is limited by the narrowness of their world. They feel doomed, they are doomed, and the novel is their elegy. Whether this is a valid portrait of horse racing is debatable, but as a storytelling strategy it is limited because choices don't matter. Unfortunately, the man making most of the choices, Tommy, is the least known character. He's offstage during crucial scenes, and what he's deciding out there is never fully explored.

"Lord of Misrule" is such a beautifully written novel that I wish I could say that every element works to perfection; I can't. But for that sense of being steeped in a specific and alien world, it is remarkable.

Smiley is the author of "Horse Heaven," "Private Life," "A Good Horse," and many other novels and works of nonfiction.

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