Lord of Misrule – review

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A novel about the goings-on at a small fictional West Virginia racetrack made a big splash in the world of literary fiction. LORD OF MISRULE by Jaimy Gordon won the 2010 National Book Award for Fiction.

Maybe you’ve heard of it, maybe you haven’t? But maybe you’re wondering if you want to read it? Maybe you dig novels by Dick Francis or Jane Smiley or my mystery-writing pals Sasscer Hill, Kit Ehrman and Susan Schreyer? Maybe you want to know what all the fuss is about?

And maybe you’re a little nervous because you’ve heard it’s about a grubby little track with a lot of low-level claiming races – and you know what can happen to those horses.

Maybe I can help you decide if you want to read the book. I can give you some ideas of what you might find in those pages, yet try not to ruin any surprises, aka “spoilers.”

LORD OF MISRULE turned out to be both everything I’d hoped and everything I’d feared.

Set in what the dust cover flap describes as “the rock-bottom end of the sport of kings,” Jaimy Gordon’s novel takes place at the fictional Indian Mounds Downs of Wheeling, West Virginia in the early 1970s.

Despite all that, I did find things I liked.

I cared about the characters

Not just equine characters, but the dreadfully flawed human characters, too. I both exulted and despaired over Two-Tie the loan shark. I fretted over Maggie, the innocent who had the bad judgment to fall in love with the horses and lousy judgment about men. I even liked Medicine Ed, whose special talent you can probably guess from his name.

Vivid descriptions

Some descriptions are even gorgeous. Here are some sentences describing the horses:

“The Mahdi even pranced, in all his big red cheer, wearing his burnished chest like a Torah breastplate.”

“He has speed all right – and it is an exact amount coiled up in him the way a black snake will live snug under your well cover all winter.”

“Little Spinoza wakes out of his dream and runs, bounds, leaps like a holy fool after the Devil and his harrower.”


Gordon manages to maintain a consistent tone among viewpoint characters with different backgrounds and speech patterns. Although, I have to admit, that sometimes, I had trouble keeping track of whose eyes were showing us the scene at first. But I wasn’t confused for long.

My personal observations

The two female characters in the book represent my mother’s worst fears about my possible future with horses.

Mom’s most immediate worry was that I’d turn out like Maggie – so dazzled by a hunky trainer that I’d slave away the days shoveling manure for him. Mom also fretted that I’d grow old like Deucey with a buzzcut and no other deep connections except for a teensy string of sad-sack horses.

Frankly, I spent 2/3 of the book waiting for the “kill truck” to show up. What does happen instead, IMO, is much, much worse, yet haunting – an inner circle of hell that could only have been dreamt up by a woman who’s seen such sights. There’s no telling what all author Gordon saw when she did similar grunt work at a racetrack, as described in this NY Times blog post.

Those moments that change everything, including a dark night of the soul toward the end of the book, are powerful, disturbing, dramatic and – geez, I wish I didn’t have them replaying so vividly inside my head.

Often, I finish a book or a movie and can’t remember the ending, like that feeling at 3 pm after having eaten chicken chow mein for lunch. This book, I’ll carry with me inside my mind for a long time to come.

I admire that kind of writing and storytelling skill. But part of me feels as if I just read “Indian Mound Downs: SVU.”

That said, despite what I liked about this book, here come my caveats. This powerful novel is not for everyone. So …

You’re wondering: “Will I like this book?”

If you have delicate sensibilities and are easily offended, you’d best not read it. Let’s just say that the film version, if it’s ever made, will push the boundaries of the R-rating.

If you feel a deep companionship with a horse, you’ll likely find it disturbing. I don’t think I’m blabbing much of a spoiler in saying that disaster lies in wait for many of the claimers. But just how, you won’t anticipate.

If you like a happy ending, with everyone getting their “just desserts” and you closing the book with a sense of secure satisfaction that “all’s right with the world,” this probably isn’t the read for you. One of the hallmarks of literary fiction is that a happy ending is not guaranteed.

If you love horse racing and worry about the sport’s future, considering its shadier practices and elements, you’ll likely experience a bad night’s sleep, even though turf writers Andy Beyer, Joe Drape and Jane Smiley gave it good reviews.

As I’ve said in other posts on this blog, loving horses is not for the faint-of-heart.

What do you think?

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  • Sasscer Hill
    February 23, 2011

    Rhonda, thank you for such a thorough and thoughtful review on Gordon’s book. I loved Gordon’s line describing a horse as “wearing his burnished chest like a Torah breastplate.” Wonderful!

    Nonetheless, your words remind me why I prefer mysteries, including dark ones, to literary fiction.

    Sasscer Hill
    FULL MORTALITY, Agatha Nominee, Best First Novel

  • Rhonda Lane
    February 23, 2011

    Hi, Sasscer. Thanks for stopping by. And congratulations on yours book’s Agatha Award nomination. Your book has some unforgettable moments, too. As well as some beautiful turns of phrase.

  • Juliet Harrison
    February 24, 2011

    I have to say that I had mixed feelings when I read the book. But not for the same reasons that you mentioned. I felt that her expert use of literary language was a total distraction from the novel. I kept being pulled out of the story line by what I felt were self-conscious turns of phrase that did not relate at all to either the characters or the setting. I was constantly aware of the writer enjoyment of language. And found that a distraction. Not a soul in that book would think in terms of describing someone as Byronic….but one of the characters did. That is the writers description and should not have been placed in the mind of a character. And that happened again and again.

    That said…..I really did like the book. Read it all the way through. Got interested in all of the characters and all of their flaws. And I am glad that I read it. Although, I do not think it should have been an award winner.

    (former, 20 year veteran of Independent bookselling)

    • Rhonda Lane
      February 24, 2011

      Hi, Juliet. Ya know, I remember raising my eyebrows at the “Byronic” reference, too. Do you remember which character used it? Maggie, I hope. Not Medicine Ed or Two-Tie, neither of which struck me as being much for “book learnin.’ ” 🙂

      So, yeah, that character using “Byronic” took me right out of the story, too. So did some of the other descriptions, a no-no for those of us working the genre side of the bookstore. So, I’d just glaze over it – or, more often than not, think “ew” – and move on.

      Now, that said – we kept reading the book, didn’t we? We kept flipping those pages – despite all the things that annoyed us. I’m not usually that “generous.”