In 2010, my racing and literary worlds collided spectacularly when Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule came out of nowhere to win the National Book Award, catapulting both book and author right into this country’s literary conversation and splendidly blending books and the backstretch.
If you’re a literary type, you can’t ignore the National Book Award winner, even if you’re not a racing fan. And if you’re a racing type, you can’t ignore a brand new book on a big stage, a book that gets mainstream coverage in the papers and on the radio, a book that has Janet Maslin explaining what a claiming race is.
Jaimy Gordon is an associate professor of English at Western Michigan University, a writer of poetry, short stories, novels, and essays. She’s a Literary Type, and as she told me in December for an article that I wrote for Thoroughbred Times, she wanted to write a literary book. She also wanted to write a book that reached the racing crowd.
She’s been successful on both counts, recognized in both the literary and the racing world, though perhaps with some ambivalence from both crowds. The story that she tells in the novel is not a pretty one, and as a result, some who love racing embrace the book’s popularity uneasily.
Indian Mound Downs, the track in the novel, is a far cry from the bucolic backstretches of popular imagination. Life at the West Virginia track is gritty, corrupt, and painful. Moments of beauty are few and far between, and readers are forced to confront the difficult decisions that small-time horsemen and women make in order to make a living.
Jessica Paquette is the racing analyst at Suffolk Downs, and her reaction to Lord of Misrule captures the sentiments of many racing fans. “While the portrayals in the book certainly were not inaccurate, I don’t think they were altogether fair, either. It felt like every character was either tragic or morally bankrupt. Even at a small track, there are people who are genuinely good, plenty of real, educated horsemen and women who simply have not had that one ‘big horse’ to catapult them out of a lifetime of doing the best they can with average at best horses.”
Chris Rossi, a racing fan and commentator in various outlets, sees the book differently. “I really didn’t think too hard on Lord of Misrule’s negative portrayal of racing. I came at the book as a novel, a story. Sure, that story was probably informed by the author’s real life experiences at the track but I took the book in as art. Heavy art. I don’t normally read this kind of fiction, haven’t since college. In fact, if racing hadn’t been the subject I probably would have put it down after page 10.”
Gordon’s novel isn’t easy in its content or its style; the story is told from multiple perspectives and in multiple voices, at times switching to the rarely used second person point of view, in the voice of an unknown, unseen interlocutor. It is self-consciously literary, the plot elliptically told, characteristics that have put off some readers while attracting others. Says Rossi, “I warmed to it toward the end, once I accepted the linear nature of the characters’ interactions through the author’s technique of not using any quotation marks – something that really, really bothered me at first. I put it in a pile to read again figuring there’s more there I missed on first reading.”
As racing fans we’re used to negative portrayals of the sport in mainstream media, accustomed to wincing when the seamy sides of racing are brought to public attention, often without nuance or context.
Gordon’s novel isn’t like that. It is nuanced; it is complex; it is true and hard and beautiful and ugly. “Lord of Misrule offers an intelligent alternative to popular notions about racing without glossing over the ugly aspects of the sport,” observed Kevin Martin of the racing website Colin’s Ghost. “The world of low level racing, represented in the book, is ugly but the author manages to also capture the humanity of the hard-working, dedicated individuals who populate that universe.”
My literary tastes run to the classical and the elegant, to authors like Edith Wharton who, even when writing about ugliness, does so in language I liken to good bourbon: so smooth going down that the sting surprises, a reminder of the deceptiveness of pleasure. Lord of Misrule was sometimes hard going for me, and I cringed at times from its aggressive imagery. It might be tequila to Wharton’s bourbon.
But whatever we’re drinking, we should raise a glass of it to Gordon and her novel. It might not be everything that we’d like a book about racing to be, but it presents, fairly, unabashedly, poetically, the lives of people on backstretches across the country, wearing a mantle of early 20th century realism and naturalism, infused with narrative inventiveness.
Our literary and racing worlds are better with this novel than without it, which the former has already recognized in bestowing upon it the National Book Award. One can’t help but wonder whether the racing world will be next: Castleton Lyons and Thoroughbred Times announced this week that they will co-sponsor the Fifth Annual Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award, presented to the author of the best book about Thoroughbred racing published in 2010. The award comes with a $10,000 cash prize, and one would have to think that Lord of Misrule would be an early favorite.