2010 National Book Award for Fiction Winner
Synopses & Reviews
At the rock-bottom end of the sport of kings sits the ruthless and often violent world of cheap horse racing, where trainers and jockeys, grooms and hotwalkers, loan sharks and touts are all struggling to take an edge, or prove their luck, or just survive. Equal parts Nathanael West, Damon Runyon and Eudora Welty, Lord of Misrule
follows five characters — scarred and lonely dreamers in the American grain — through a year and four races at Indian Mound Downs, downriver from Wheeling, West Virginia.
Horseman Tommy Hansel has a scheme to rescue his failing stable: He'll ship four unknown but ready horses to Indian Mound Downs, run them in cheap claiming races at long odds, and then gut out fast before anyone notices. The problem is, at this rundown riverfront half-maile racetrack in the Northern Panhandle, everybody notices — veteran groom Medicine Ed, Kidstuff the blacksmith, old lady "gyp" Deucey Gifford, stall superintendent Suitcase Smithers, eventually even the ruled-off "racetrack financier" Two-Tie and the ominous leading trainer, Joe Dale Bigg. But no one bothers to factor in Tommy Hansel's go-fer girlfriend, Maggie Koderer. Like the beautiful, used-up, tragic horses she comes to love, Maggie has just enough heart to wire everyone's flagging hopes back to the source of all luck.
"2010 National Book Award-finalist Gordon's new novel begins and ends at a backwoods race track in early-1970s West Virginia, where horse trainer Tommy Hansel dreams up a scam. He'll run four horses in claiming races at long odds and get out before anyone realizes how good his horses are. But at a track as small as Indian Mound Downs, where everyone knows everybody's business, Hansel's hopes are quickly dashed. Soon his luminous, tragic girlfriend, Maggie, appears, drawing the eye of everyone, including sadistic gangster Joe Dale Bigg. Though Maggie finds herself with an unexpected protector in family gangster Two-Tie, even he can't protect her from her own fascination with the track and its misfit members. While Gordon's latest reaches for Great American Novel status, and her use of the colloquial voice perfectly evokes the time and place, constant shifts in perspective make the novel feel over-styled and under-plotted. And Maggie's supposed charisma clashes with her behavior, creating a feeling that something is missing, whereas Hansel is more witnessed than examined, his character developing almost entirely through the eyes of others, creating uncertainty that often borders on indifference." Publishers Weekly (Copyright PWyxz LLC)
"Gordon has completely mastered the language of the racetrack, and formed it into an evocative and idiosyncratic style... [E]ach voice dips into racetrack lingo in a distinctive way. It is an impressive performance." Washington Post
"A novel of luck, pluck, farce and above all horse racing... Exceptional writing and idiosyncratic characters make this an engaging read." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
Lord of Misrule is a darkly realistic novel about a young woman living through a year of horse racing at a half-mile track in West Virginia, while everyone's best laid schemes keep going brutally wrong. With her first novel since her acclaimed Bogeywoman (1999), Jaimy Gordon bears comparison to other great writers of the American demimonde, such as Nathanael West, Damon Runyon, and Eudora Welty.
About the Author
Jaimy Gordon's third novel, Bogeywoman was on the Los Angeles Times list of Best Books for 2000. Her second novel, She Drove Without Stopping, brought her an Academy-Institute Award for her fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Gordon's short story, "A Night's Work," which shares a number of characters with Lord of Misrule, appeared in Best American Short Stories 1995. She is also the author of a novella, Circumspections from an Equestrian Statue, and the fantasy classic novel Shamp of the City-Solo. Gordon teaches at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo and in the Prague Summer Program for Writers.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's discussion of Lord of Misrule, Jaimy Gordon's award-winning novel of the dusty, dark, and beautiful world of small-time horse racing.
1. What does Maggie’s arrival at Indian Mound Downs establish about the way things work at the track? What do Medicine Ed and Deucey’s reactions to Maggie demonstrate about the pecking order at the track?
2. Why do Ed and Deucey put up with the deprivations and humiliations of their daily routines? What comforts or satisfactions does hanging out at the track provide?
3. What aspects of Maggie’s past and character account for her attraction to Tommy? What qualities make him appealing to her? What are the implications of her recognition that “He wasn’t quite right in the soul, really” [p. 22]?
4. Deucey tells Maggie, “I wrote the book on two-faced false-hearted luck, girlie, anything you want to know about going it on your own at the races, come to me” [p. 23]. What roles does Deucey assume in Maggie’s life? What does she teach Maggie, either directly or by example, about being a woman in a man’s world?
5. In what ways does Medicine Ed embody the characteristics of racetrack habitués at every level, from owners to grooms, petty crooks to inveterate fans? What does he demonstrate about the opposing pulls of actual experience and the fantasies and hopes that shape our lives?
6. Gordon has discussed the similarity between Medicine Ed and Two-Tie, describing them as “lonely and childless old men deeply tired of the daily work they do, facing their last years without the protection of family” [National Book Foundation interview with Bret Anthony Johnston]. What reasons does Two-Tie offer for the way his life turned out? In what ways does his Jewish background shape his identity and influence his worldview?
7. At the beginning of the novel, Maggie projects a girlish innocence and an eagerness to experience life. How does she change over the course of the novel? What light do her musings at the end of the novel [p. 289-90] shed on what she has lost and gained? What do her reactions to Tommy’s deterioration reveal about the woman she has become?
8. In a review in The Washington Post [November 16, 2010] Jane Hamilton wrote, “[Gordon’s] four horse characters—Mr. Boll Weevil, Little Spinoza, Pelter and Lord of Misrule—are bursting with personality.” From their names to their histories to their performances in races, how does Gordon bring out the distinctive qualities of each horse? Does she avoid anthropomorphizing them? What does the novel show about the gap between human assumptions and the horses’ innate intelligence and their accommodations to the regimens and expectations imposed by humans?
9. One critic called Maggie’s “relationship with horses the most erotic one in the book” [Bob Hoover, Philly.com 11/27/10]. Do the descriptions of Maggie’s tending to the horses (pp. 110, 133, and 199, for example) support this judgment?
10. Luck is a central theme in Lord of Misrule. For Tommy, “[luck] came because you called to it, whistled for it, because it saw you wouldn’t take no for an answer” [p 22]. According to Maggie, “A person had to see himself, or herself, as lucky not just once in a while, but plugged into a steady current of luck, like an electrical appliance. . . . People who thought they couldn’t lose—Joe Dale Bigg, for one—were some kind of machinery” [p. 159]. How are these different approaches or concepts reflected in the actions taken by Tommy and Bigg? Are any of the characters able to resist or defeat the whims of luck and chance? If so, what allows them to do so?
11. Most of the novel is written in the third person. How does Gordon make the thoughts and the conversational styles of each character distinct? Discuss her use of racetrack slang and nicknames, invented words, and dialect in bringing to life an unfamiliar milieu and its denizens.
12. Why does Gordon switch to the second person in the chapters devoted to Tommy? What are the benefits and the limitations of this unusual narrative voice? Does it bring Tommy into sharper focus? How does his self-image differ from the perceptions of others and in what ways does it confirm them? What do the intimate tone, uninhibited language, and graphic sexual descriptions of these sections add to the novel?
13. Does the structure of the novel—the chapter-by-chapter focus on particular horses and races—enhance the reader’s involvement with the story? Does it help to illuminate the diverse factors that influence the characters’ actions? How does it affect the progress of the plot and the build-up to the final race?
14. Gordon weaves many literary and religious allusions into the story. The name of Hansel’s horse, the Mahdi (the redeemer of the world in Islamic religion), is one example; what other references can you identify? What literary motifs or narrative traditions are evoked in the accounts of the horses’ lineage [p. 114]; Tommy’s obsession with a long-lost twin [pp. 22, 160] and the “might-could-be twin brothers” Mr. Boll Weevil and the Mahdi [p. 43]; the description of Lord of Misrule [p. 217-219]; and Two-Tie’s relationships with Maggie and Donald?
15. Gordon’s writing style—her use of metaphor, poetic imagery, literary and religious allusions and references—is unusual in a novel about lowlifes and violent acts. Do you find the seemingly incompatible juxtaposition effective?
16. The world of thoroughbred horse racing has been the subject of several popular books and films, including Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling Seabiscuit. What does Lord of Misrule share with other depictions of racing you have read or seen? What new insights does it provide into the racing community?
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