WON 2010 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FOR FICTIONAt the rock-bottom end of the sport of kings sits the ruthless and often violent world of cheap horse racing, where trainers and jockeys, grooms and hotwalkers, loan sharks and touts all struggle to take an edge, or prove their luck, or just survive. Equal parts Nathanael West, Damon Runyon and Eudora Welty, Lord of Misrule follows five characters — scarred and lonely dreamers in the American grain — through a year and four races at Indian Mound Downs, downriver from Wheeling, West Virginia. Horseman Tommy Hansel has a scheme to rescue his failing stable: He’ll ship four unknown but ready horses to Indian Mound Downs, run them in cheap claiming races at long odds, and then get out fast before anyone notices. The problem is, at this rundown riverfront half-mile racetrack in the Northern Panhandle, everyone notices–veteran groom Medicine Ed, Kidstuff the blacksmith, old lady “gyp” Deucey Gifford, stall superintendent Suitcase Smithers, eventually even the rulled-off “racetrack financier” Two-Twi and the ominous leading trainer, Joe Dale Bigg. But no one bothers to factor in Tommy Hansel’s go-fer girlfriend, Maggie Koderer. Like the beautiful, used-up, tragic horses she comes to love, Maggie has just enough heart to wire everyone’s flagging hopes back to the source of all luck.
Amazon Best Books of the Month, December 2010: It is nearly impossible not to be drawn into horseracing cliches when describing Jaimy Gordon’s novel Lord of Misrule, especially since it came out of the pack as a dark horse (there you go) to win the 2010 National Book Award for fiction the same week it was published. It’s a novel of the track, and Gordon embraces racing’s lingo and lore and even some of its romance of longshot redemption, though she knows those bets never really come in, at least the way you think they will. Her story is set at a backwater half-mile track in West Virginia in the early ’70s, the sort of place where people wash up or get stuck or, if they’re particularly cruel, carve out a provincial fiefdom. The horses there are washed up too but still somehow glorious, and they’re as vividly and individually defined as the people who build their lives around them. Between horse and handler there’s a sort of cross-species alchemy that, along with Gordon’s gorgeous language and wise storytelling, provides the central beauty of her mud-caked but mythic tale, which Maggie, one of her most compelling characters, comes the closest to describing: “On the last little spit of being human, staring through rags of fog into the not human, where you weren’t supposed to be able to see let alone cross, she could make a kind of home.” –Tom Nissley
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