Saturday, May 21, 2011

Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

Sunday Silence and Easy Goer battle
it out in the 1989 Preakness.

I was one of those kids who loved horses. I read horse books galore, The Saddle Club, everything by Marguerite Henry, The Black Stallion. You name it, I'd read it.  (Imagine my horror when I mistakenly picked up a copy of The Red Pony by John Steinbeck in 4th grade thinking it was going to be just another a good horse story. . .)

My grandpa and I would watch the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont every year hoping for a winner.  Although there still hasn't been a Triple Crown winner in my lifetime, I keep tuning in, partly in homage to my grandpa and partly because there is something just so stirring about watching those horses run.  I still remember watching the 1989 Preakness.  We were eating lunch and my grandpa called to remind me that it was on, so I herded my family into the den and stayed on the phone with Papa while we watched as Pat Valenzuela riding Sunday Silence made an incredible bid for the lead and beat Easy Goer by a nose. Wow, what a race!

In honor of the Preakness being run today, I thought I'd review Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon.  Gordon is coming to speak at OTIS in Los Angeles in September.  Since this book won the National Book Award and I have the opportunity to hear the author speak, I figured I should give it a go.

I'll admit--I didn't like it at all while I was reading it. It was such a chore to slog through it each time I picked it up.  The author decided to use that frustrating (to me) stylistic device that eschews quotation marks. Ugh.  Some of the characters spoke in such heavy dialect that it was all I could do to interpret what they were saying, let alone try and decode the conversations seeped in racetrack jargon.  Moreover, I read books for the characters and these characters were all shifty and a little crazy.  I never felt like I could connect with any of them.

And yet.

Two weeks later, I'm still thinking about that pitiful little racetrack, Indian Mound Downs.  I can picture the misty mornings where everything appears ghostly and not as it really is.  I can see the used up old racehorses plodding along in circles at the exerciser. Gordon really wrapped me in her spell.

To understand this book, you need to have some idea of how claiming races work.  While the exciting stakes races are the ones we usually see on television, the bulk of races run at the average racetrack are claiming races where the horses entered can be purchased before the start of a race. This prevents people from entering a ringer to nab a large purse since they wouldn't want to risk someone claiming their horse for a below-market price.

Lord of Misrule examines both the people who earn their livelihood by taking care of these animals and the ones who hope to make their fortune by exploiting the old workhorses (who've already seen their best days) and the new, untested horses who may or may not pan out.

Into this mix, Gordon throws a rather seedy racing establishment, a bookie who's been thrown off the track, a low-level mafioso, a couple of grooms aren't unwilling to put their name down as an owner to save a horse from being claimed, and a new, unpredictable couple who turn up with a string of horses hoping to turn a quick profit and move on.

Not an easy read. Definitely not a "heartwarming" cast of quirky characters (although there is something to be said for names like "Suitcase Smithers," "Zeno," and "Two-Tie" and those aren't even the names of the horses). And I seriously did dread picking it up during my lunch hour each day.  But the imagery is still haunting me and I can't help but think about the fates of Medicine Ed and Maggie and Deucey.

In the end, I'm glad to have read it.

(Good luck, Animal Kingdom--here's hoping for a Triple Crown win!)

<I checked this book out of my library.>

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