Lord of Misrule (Gordon)

Lord of Misrule 
Jaimy Gordon, 2010
Knopf Doubleday
304 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307946737

Winner, 2010 National Book Award for Fiction

A brilliant novel that captures the dusty, dark, and beautiful world of small-time horse racing, where trainers, jockeys, grooms and grifters vie for what little luck is offered at a run-down West Virginia track.

Tommy Hansel has a plan: run four horses, all better than they look on paper, at long odds at Indian Mound Downs, then grab the purse—or cash a bet—and run before anyone’s the wiser. At his side is Maggie Koderer, who finds herself powerfully drawn to the gorgeous, used up animals of the cheap track. She also lands in the cross-hairs of leading trainer Joe Dale Bigg.

But as news of Tommy’s plan spreads, from veteran groom Medicine Ed, to loan shark Two-Tie, to Kidstuff the blacksmith, it’s Maggie, not Tommy or the handlers of legendary stakes horse Lord of Misrule, who will find what's valuable in a world where everything has a price. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—July 4, 1944
Where—Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Education—B.A., Antioch College; M.A., Ph.D.,
   Brown Univeristy
Awards—National Book Award
Currently—lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan

Jaimy Gordon is an American writer. She graduated from Antioch College in 1966, received an M.A. in English from Brown University in 1972, and earned Doctor of Arts in Creative Writing in l975, also from Brown.

She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she teaches in the MFA program of Western Michigan University. She is author of the underground fantasy classic Shamp of the City-Solo. Her fourth novel, Lord of Misrule, won the 2010 National Book Award for fiction. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
Perhaps Lord of Misrule would not be so startling if Ms. Gordon's other books had been more widely read. But this novel is so assured, exotic and uncategorizable, with such an unlikely provenance, that it arrives as an incontrovertible winner, a bona fide bolt from the blue…Ms. Gordon is magically adept at fusing the banal and the mythic…She's also keenly attuned to all the aspects of carnality and power that infuse this story, from the way horses feel in human hands to the way Tommy uses his physical magnetism both to dominate Maggie and to use her as a tease for others.
Janet Maslin - New York Times

Gordon has completely mastered the language of the racetrack, and formed it into an evocative and idiosyncratic style. Lord of Misrule...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…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.
Jane Smiley - Washington Post

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, leaving the feeling that something's 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

This is not the world of Seabiscuit or Secretariat, where the right horse winning the right race makes everything good; this is a goofered world ruled by misrule. But sometimes, as Gordon tells it, the smell of pine tar and horse manure can function like a “devil’s tonic.” Words can do that, too, as this nearly word-perfect novel makes abundantly clear. —Bill Ott

A novel of luck, pluck, farce and above all horse racing—not at tony and elegant sites like Churchill Downs and Ascot but rather at a rinky-dink racetrack in Indian Mound Downs, W.Va. Gordon (Bogeywoman, 1999, etc.) clearly loves the subculture of grifters and ne'er-do-wells whose lives center on a venue that obviously has never and will never bring them success. Her lowlifes have names like Two-Tie, Medicine Ed, Kidstuff and Deucey, and they're capable of speaking a kind of racetrack patois occasionally reminiscent of Damon Runyon characters: "So I want you should write me a race, well, not me personally, fellow from Nebraska, kid I used to know back when—actually I used to know his mother...She was very good to me. Alas, I fear I did not return the favor like I should have." At the center of the novel is Tommy Hansel, a horse trainer with a get-rich-quick scheme that he feels cannot fail. He plans to enter "sure-fire" winners in claiming races, benefit from the long odds, then get out of town quickly. Nothing, of course, goes according to plan, especially since everyone seems on to his scheme, and the horses aren't as cooperative as Tommy would like them to be. Complicating the issue is the quirky, intelligent Maggie Koderer, new to the horse-race business but nonetheless Tommy's love. Maggie is college-educated but is drawn to the seamy underbelly of the track and the broken-down beauty of the horses. Gordon structures the narrative around the four horses, the last best hope being Lord of Misrule, and she seamlessly moves the reader from one narrative consciousness to another without being manipulative or intrusive. The writing about the races themselves is a tour de force of energy and esprit. By the end of the novel none of the characters quite have what they want, but most of them get what they deserve. Exceptional writing and idiosyncratic characters make this an engaging read.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
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?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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