National Book Award winner Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon, inspired by a summer job she had during her college years, reveals the world of the rundown horse stable/racing operation full of sore, over-run horses, cynical, sometimes drug-taking groomsmen and criminal owners. Indian Mound Downs in West Virginia has a number of such characters, with the most sympathetic of the humans being seventy-three-year-old black groomsman Medicine Ed, hobbling on his “froze-up left leg, the result of being run over by a big mare” and a newcomer with “frizzly” pigtailed hair, Maggie. But it is appropriate that the chapters have the names of horses, since the animals get most of our sympathy. The story involves the back-and-forth ownership of horses, culminating in the destruction of some favorites, caused perhaps by the meddling of “Medicine” Ed mixing up his unknowable potions.
Tommy and his girlfriend Maggie show up with the horse Mr. Boll Weevil who, like the song says, is trying to find a home. This is a refrain in the book, especially with Medicine Ed’s dreams of settling down quietly in his old age. When Boll Weevil wins but is injured in the process and at the same time the horse-track owner Zeno dies after claiming the horse, Tommy takes over and his red horse the Mahdi becomes his favorite. Medicine Ed calls Tommy the “young fool” with no experience, and indeed this college-boy is unstable and even violent with Maggie. Meanwhile Maggie comes into her own, getting close to another horse, Little Spinoza, whom she calms by rubbing him for hours. This horse, having attacked the gangster owner’s stupid and violent son, must be handled carefully. When a perfect jockey is found for “Spinny,” Maggie switches allegiance to Pelter, an older champion horse cared for by Medicine Ed. When Pelter is stolen from her by the gangster owner Biggs so that he can lure her into his clutches, at that point the book gets into full gear.
Don’t give up on this book. It may take more time than some books to get into this world; in fact, it may take close to 200 pages of an almost 300-page book. That happens because of the constant switching of points of view, the dialect and the lingo of the horse track world. A glossary might have helped for terms like “claiming” and “on the cuff.” Every perspective is given, including the horse’s:
Little Spinoza looked around for Maggie, his handmaiden who made it her job to shape the world comfy or even ecstatic. Where she was no pain. And here she was, but getting smaller and weaker while waves of something hurtful and chaotic, some harsh old world he dimly remembered, were getting louder, faster and taller.
Gordon does an incredible job of bringing this world to light. Her visual details are unforgettable, so that a person’s special details stick. The setting is also immediately established: “Inside the back gate of Indian Mound Downs, a hot-walking machine creaked round and round.” According to Medicine Ed:
the going-nowhere contraption must be the lost soul of this cheap racetrack. It resembled some woebegone carnival ride, some skeleton of a two-bit ride dreamed up by a dreamer too tired to dream. There’d been no rain all August and by now the fresh worked horses were half lost in the pink cloud of their own shuffling. Red dust from those West Virginia hills rode in their wide open nostrils and stuck to their squeezebox lungs.
The thumbnail descriptions are inventive and precise. Maggie’s uncle Two-Tie, who is not allowed around the grounds because of some infraction, nevertheless knows everyone. Deucey Gifford with her crew-cut hair
was an old broad-browed retriever dog, faithful to the death. The doggish part was how she never let go. Once she thought something belonged to her, or didn’t, her jaw clamped down and her gaze flattened out and she could get stupid, very stupid. Jojo Wood, leaning back on the sofa with his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth, was the commonest dog around the racetrack, a square-headed beagle mutt who padded around the backside, nose low to the ground, hoping for that pizza crust or dropped hamburger, without a clue or a plan.
Earlie Beaufait was “smarter than Jojo, but twitchy as a Chihuahua in repose.” These dog associations with humans are appropriate from someone who has the most faithful actual dog companion Elizabeth, one of the animals the reader may shed tears over.
The gangsters do seem clichéd, and the cinematic ending is like a gangster movie. But the racetrack world is fully realized.