Book Review - Lord of Misrule

The surprise winner of the 2010 US National Book Award, Jaimy Gordon's horseracing novel is big on character and narrative finesse. It features a fascinating array of down-at-heel hopefuls who try their luck (and their money) at the dilapidated Indian Mound Downs racetrack in West Virginia. This is the world of "claiming" races in 1970. An owner can enter a superior horse in a race he's more likely to win, but then runs the risk of the horse being claimed (bought) by another owner at a lower price than its true value.

Good-looking, stylish newcomer Tommy Hansel arrives at the racetrack with four horses and his frizzle-haired girlfriend Maggie in tow. His plan is to enter his string of horses into claiming races and rank them lower than their real worth. His hope is to place some lucrative bets, win some purse money, and get out fast with his string intact.

Tommy hasn't counted on certain shady characters who are already ahead of the game. Old-timers like the veteran groom Medicine Ed and the lesbian "gyp" trainer Deucey Gifford think Tommy's a "young fool" but throw in their lot with him anyway. Stall superintendent Suitcase Smithers, loanshark Two-Tie, and gangster trainer Joe Dale Bigg prefer to bide their time and wait for Tommy to come unstuck.

Maggie complicates matters when she draws the interest of both Two-Tie and Biggs. And then there are the horses that unexpectedly win. One of the joys of Gordon's writing, as hard and fast as its subject, is that the horses are drawn in as much detail as her characters, whether an experienced thoroughbred like Pelter, "slant-eyed, bump nosed", or the nervy "philosopher", Little Spinoza, described as "offended and suspicious".

Coming from a long line of horse players and having "run" a horse of her own at similar racetracks, Gordon knows her stuff. As well as creating vivid characters, her rich racetrack vernacular plunges the reader into what for most of us will be an alien world of cheap horseracing in the 1970s.

Lord of Misrule is by no means perfect. There are some passages of overblown prose and Tommy is less fleshed out than the other characters. But there is something mesmerising about Gordon's portrait. In each carefully constructed chapter (each one representing a race), I found myself rooting for a particular horse. And the menace of the gangsters keeps you gripped. Like their gambling, the book proves strangely addictive.

Originally published in the Independent on 5 October 2011