Although I was rooting for Great House to win the National Book Award, I must admit it was pretty cool to finish this book late yesterday evening and then turn on my computer and see that as I was reading the last few chapters, author Jaimy Gordon was being given the big prize. Having read all the fiction finalists, this may have been my second choice.
The book is set at Indian Mound Downs, a small horseracing track in West Virginia. The characters—among them aging groom Medicine Ed, “gyp” and horse owner Deucey Gifford, and disgraced money man Two-Tie—are just getting by, eking out a living on the seedy side of the sport of kings. But then Maggie Koderer turns up requesting stalls for the horses her boyfriend Tommy Hansel intends to bring down to race at Indian Mounds. Unlike the others, Maggie, who recently left her job as a food writer for a local newspaper, hasn’t been worn down from years of track life. She’s still enjoying the early stages of her seduction this world. What she doesn’t yet know is that, like her relationship with Tommy, a love affair with racing brings with it violence and pain.
Gordon is a wonderful descriptive writer with a real talent for taking on different voices. Most of the book is in third person (with a few sections in second person), and when the book shifts it focus from one character to another, Gordon also adjusts the narrative voice to suit the character. The narrative voice for the sections about Medicine Ed had perhaps the most distinctive voice, as displayed here:
How long would Medicine Ed last? He had been on the racetrack since he was eight years old. After sixty-four years of this racetrack life he, too, was sore and tired, and like the boll weevil in the song, he was looking for a home. He knew he would always have work, long as he could work. But where was it wrote that he had to rub horses till the day he died?
Ed’s cadence and dialect are clear throughout the book without (usually) being overdone. I could clearly hear Ed’s voice in my head clearly whenever he was on the page.
I definitely got the sense the Gordon paid careful attention to every single word of the page. And for the most part, I thought the prose was well-done. Still, I was sometimes too conscious of the talent behind the words, rather than being caught up in the words themselves or the story the words are telling. For me, there’s a fine line between lovely and labored when it comes to prose, and sometimes I was too aware of the labor. Gordon has also adopted the odd (but inexplicably popular) affectation of not using quotation marks for dialogue. That’s not the kind of thing I’ll necessarily hold against a book, but there were several moments when I was brought up short because I didn’t realize I was reading dialogue until I’d read a few paragraphs of it! (Nicole Krauss also didn’t use quotation marks in Great House, but I don’t remember having this problem there. I think there was just less dialogue in Great House. Lord of Misrule is at times dialogue-heavy.)
The story was a similarly mixed success for me. Each section of the book involves a different race and a focuses on a specific horse. Although all the sections are building to the final race, involving the mystery horse Lord of Misrule, the structure does give the book an episodic feel. It took a while for me to get into the story, just because there are a lot of characters and because the racing world is not one I’m immediately comfortable in. Gordon does a nice job helping readers get acclimated—it’s just not an instantaneous process. Once I got into the book, I was generally okay. I was especially riveted by the second race, involving Little Spinoza, a horse who seems to panic at the slightest provocation but whose owners are convinced has a winning race in him. But there were some sections where my interest flagged, and I can’t quite put my finger on why.
I think part of the problem was that the only character I cared about was Maggie; she’s the only one who didn’t feel like a sketch to me. And my caring about Maggie did run all that deep—it was more like idle curiosity about what would happen to her, which isn’t exactly enough to make me excited to pick up the book. I did think that Gordon used Maggie’s story to draw out some ideas about how we choose what kind of lives we will lead and how we learn to find peace with our limitations (or not). These ideas also show up to some extent in the other characters’ paths, but I just wasn’t drawn in.
It’s also quite possible that I have set myself up for “highbrow literary fiction fatigue” by reading all the National Book Award finalists at once. As I was reading this, I kept looking up wistfully at the next Morland dynasty book waiting to be read or wishing I were instead reading the copy of King Hereafter that I’ve been reading over lunch at the office. I think I just need a straightforward story right now.
So it seems that Lord of Misrule is one of many books that I can see as being technically accomplished but that I can’t really bring myself to love. I’m sure there are plenty of readers out there who will love it, and it’s a wonderful thing to see the National Book Award bringing little-known books like this into the spotlight. I’m not sorry I read it, but it’s not one I see myself coming back to.