An evening with Jaimy Gordon, author of Lord of Misrule

A crowd of about 30 filled the back of BookCourt in Cobble Hill last night to hear Jaimy Gordon read from and talk about her National Book Award winning novel, Lord of Misrule. Earlier in the day, Gordon learned that the book was named a finalist for the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award, presented by Castleton Lyons and Thoroughbred Times.

Gordon read several excerpts from the novel, focusing on Little Spinoza, the well-bred but difficult grandson of a racing legend who has been bought by three backstretch workers from the leading trainer of the small West Virginia track at which they all work. The excerpts highlighted several of the main characters – Maggie, Medicine Ed, Joe Dale Biggs – and gave the audience a glimpse of their personalities and their quirks, as well as of some of the novel’s themes.

A number of those who showed up had already read the novel, and while many – nearly all – had been to the racetrack, the first question was about the sense of inevitable doom that one reader saw in the book. Gordon had invited Joe Drape and me to ask and take questions with her, and this first question alluded specifically to what happens to horses. In light of Drape’s recent article on the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, the early focus on the evening was on the grimmer side of horse racing, but Gordon didn’t allow it to stay there, sharing with listeners her love of the backstretch and of racing. “I can’t let myself get one of those racing channels,” she offered, “or I’d never get anything done.”

She talked of her own years on the backstretch, of finding her way there, as her character Maggie does, by following a “handsome, charismatic” trainer, and of leaving her job at a small newspaper to work with horses. “I had to leave the track after three years,” she explained, “because if I didn’t then, I knew I never would.”

Choosing her graduate school program by its proximity to the racetrack – “Brown was close to Lincoln Downs; there was nothing near the University of Iowa” – Gordon unfortunately seldom gets to the racetrack these days, but she hopes to hit a few this year as she continues to travel to support the novel; she’ll be in Lexington on April 13th for the presentation of the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award.

Gordon talked about the theme of “twinning” in the novel. Trainer Tommy Hansel has a lost twin; Little Spinoza runs one bad, one good race; the Mahdi and Mr Boll Wevil resemble each other. She suggested that this theme represents her own Manichean view of racing, her awareness of its dark side and her delight in the horses and the sport.

Asked about her presentation of the animals in the book, both the horses and the dog Elizabeth, by an audience member who described that presentation as remarkably “un-anthropomorphic,” Gordon laughed with relief. “As I was writing,” she said, “I thought that I was being too anthropomorphic.”  She spoke with particular fondness of Pelter, Maggie’s favorite horse, and recalled the horse in her life on which she modeled the old claimer in the novel.

Gordon doesn’t shy from disclosing that Maggie is based on herself as a young woman; now, she says, she sees more of herself in other characters. “I started the novel ten years ago, and I got a little sick of Maggie,” she admitted of the character whose type has been in other of Gordon’s works. “I think more like Medicine Ed and Two-Tie, looking back at life, wondering if the choices I’ve made were the right ones.”

Given the prodigious success of this novel and the acclaim that it’s brought Gordon, the author is about as far from the regretful, unreliable lives of those two men as Keeneland is from Indian Mound Downs. Perhaps that too is part of the dichotomy with which Gordon infused the novel, part of the conflict that many of us feel about the sport.

“Racing is tragic and painful,” Gordon acknowledged, “and I love it.”

Click here for my interview with Gordon in Thoroughbred Times.

Lord of Misrule is now available in paperback, published by Knopf Doubleday. The photograph of Jaimy Gordon is copyrighted by Peter Blickle and used with permission.

5 thoughts on “An evening with Jaimy Gordon, author of Lord of Misrule

  1. It was so great to have Jaimy Gordon journey out to Brooklyn and read from her novel. I enjoyed the exchange between the two of you regarding the character Tommy Hansel and the readers’ ability to hear his voice. I can’t wait to read the book and weigh in on this. It was also nice to meet Joe Drape and I am so happy I remembered to bring my copy of “To the Swift” and have him sign it for me.

  2. Hey
    well, i read it twice and bought i for friends at Christmas but the overall consensus was not good – very colloquial and hard to follow and gosh, racing was like that a lot more 20 years ago – anyway, only my opinion but I don’t get the awards and I can pass off mine before you buy it

  3. Thanks for posting about the evening. I think any of us who love horse racing feel that dichotomy every time we go to the track or watch a race on TV. We all know the dark side and despise it, all the while loving the horses and the beauty of the race.

  4. Jen, the setting for the novel’s not contemporary: Ak-sar-ben is still open in it, so it’s not set in the present. And I liked the inventiveness and unpredictability of the narrative, but as you say, to each her own!

    BrooklynSaint: funny about that disagreement, wasn’t it? I read it twice, and I still feel like he’s elusive.

    So true, Linda…

    I had seen that, August: good news/bad news, I guess.

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