A Clouded Thing

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Jaimy Gordon’s National Book Award-winning novel conveys the hard-knock world of horseracing in a style reminiscent of Walker Percy and Mark Twain.

While in England covering the horse races at Ascot for The New Yorker, A.J. Liebling wrote that one of the event’s great pleasures for a man who appreciated “belles-lettres,” was perusing the morning’s tipster columns to find out “what is not going to happen before it doesn’t,” and then, the following day, reading about “what should have happened after it hasn’t.” Here were reporters who, by the very nature of their beat, were doomed to get it wrong, to fail publicly, most of the time. And yet they did so spectacularly.

Jaimy Gordon’s novel Lord of Misrule, which came from nowhere to claim this year’s National Book Award, tells this same story. At Indian Mound Downs, a decrepit track in Wheeling, West Virginia, an assortment of losers beats on against life’s current. An outsider, Tommy Hansel, arrives to enter horses in four “claiming races,” in which other owners can buy an entered horse prior to race time and lead it away afterward regardless of its finish, to try and save his sinking stable. The potential for gamesmanship in this sort of equine poker game is obvious. Hansel banks on slipping in, collecting cash, and getting out of town again without the track regulars being any the wiser. But he underestimates the locals.

Like Liebling’s tipsters, Gordon’s grooms, jockeys, owners, and trainers know their craft inside and out. But they also know that all the racing insight in the world amounts to squat in the face of Lady Luck. As Gordon’s veteran groom Medicine Ed tells us, “I tell you a secret, horse racing is not no science. Some of ‘em tries to make it a science, with the drugs and the chemicals and that, but ma’ fact it’s more like a religion. It’s a clouded thing.” And yet, after the labor, the doubt, the heartache, the violence, among the dusty stalls and pill-box trailers, it’s all somehow worth it in the end:

And which is why every now and then when some kind of a good thing come together in nature, it make the whole world new. Seem like once again he have found that harmony, how they is a power in charge and strong secret threads lead around and under, and tie it all together.

This, of course, is our story—and Gordon brilliantly elevates her version of it above the esoteric language and culture of horse racing that might otherwise have limited the novel’s readership to devotees of the Daily Racing Forum. Doubtless, one reason she is able to do this is that her knowledge of the track is experiential. Gordon worked for three years at Charles Town track in West Virginia and at Green Mountain Track in Vermont before deciding to enter a creative writing program, according to a recent profile of her in The New York Times. She chose Brown University over the Iowa Writers Workshop because it was near Lincoln Downs, a racetrack in Rhode Island. As a result, the world depicted in Lord of Misrule is vivid and authentic. The characters and settings are not figments of her imagination, but people and places she knows intimately. In fact, it’s not too much of a leap to see, in Misrule’s heroine, the wiry haired and college educated Maggie Koderer, some version of Gordon herself.

The other part of Gordon’s ability to transcend the idiom of horse racing owes to the deft hand she employs to convey that sense of place and character. Sure, her “exercise girl” might talk about “goofer” and “bute,” but she lives in a trailer whose windows, dressed in “yellow crinkly plastic curtains like chicken skin,” are just outside the bathroom and its “sardine-can toilet” beneath the “frame of a long-gone mirror glued to the wall, its cardboard backing smeared with black smoke-trails of glue.” Gordon’s talent for depicting scenes like this is not limited to squalor. Through Gordon’s pen, we fear the psychological and emotional power Tommy lords over Maggie, hear the voices of such disparate characters as a black southern man and a host of small-time Jewish hustlers, and rise to our feet with the characters when a horse named Little Spinoza comes from behind to win:

Only Deucey yelled a little. Medicine Ed done lost his voice. He bowed his head for the beauty of it and because it come from his dead mother. Also the frizzly head girl ain’t squeal nor holler. Her eyes was wide and shining and she sink her fingers into his bony arm behind the elbow and squeeze so hard it hurt. I can’t believe I saw that, she say, it was so… great.

Gordon plays with perspective from chapter to chapter. In most, we’re given an omniscient narrator who sort of apes the dialect of the protagonist. With Medicine Ed, we hear something like Mark Twain’s Jim. With Joe Dale Bigg, we get Damon Runyon’s Nathan Detroit. But Gordon’s most interesting innovations are reserved for the chapters devoted to Tommy Hansel. Here, she channels Walker Percy, using the second-person point of view to narrate. It makes for an oddly effective narrative, as a kind of removed intimacy develops between the reader and character. Here, Tommy comes home and finds Maggie asleep in the stable:

She is so small in the middle that you can pull the jeans down to her knees by opening just the one button with a soft pinch of two fingers, and look out now if she doesn’t let you do it, without even opening her eyes to ask who it is, the slut, golden straw sticking in her dense fuzzy hair, thorning the kinky pig tails.

Like stories about boxing, horseracing stories are typically formulaic: lots of jargon, hard-knock loser makes it big or dies trying. But Jaimy Gordon’s little dark horse is smarter and more subtle than all that, and Lord of Misrule is not to be missed.

John Wilwol teaches literature in Washington D.C. His work has also appeared at The Millions and The Washington Independent Review of Books. More from this author →