[Reviewed by Matt Baxter]
Beyond the bright lights and champagne toasts of the Kentucky Derby and other big time horse racing events are smaller, dingier, less attended, and seemingly more dangerous races known as claiming races. These are the races that populate Jaimy Gordon’s novel Lord of Misrule.
Claiming races are those where the horses are up for sale until shortly before the race. Title to the horse transfers just before the start of the race, but the previous owner is entitled to any purse that results from the horse’s performance. Within each race the horses are priced similarly, in theory preventing a higher class equine from easily beating the field. Its owner would, presumably, not want it to be sold for less than its value.
Into this world Gordon inserts a host of characters, heroic and unsavory. They are hard lived or hard working, and sometimes both. Lowlifes, miscreants, and outright criminals make trouble in and around Indian Mound Downs in West Virginia, a horse track where owners seem to go when they have nowhere else to race.
Tommy and Maggie arrive at Indian Mound hoping for a quick and easy score. The track denizens—the groom, blacksmith, an old gypsy lady, and others—get caught up in the act as Tommy tries to beat the system and Maggie bides her time until she can get on with her life on her own terms. Little does she realize how attached she will become to the horses.
Following these two star-crossed lovers, as well as Medicine Ed, Two-Tie, and others with whom they come in contact, we understand the unusual rules and competitive nature of claiming races and how some participants might stoop to dubious methods to win. Lord of Misrule is not an instructional tome about horse racing, but the reader gets an education nonetheless.
The characters we meet seem damaged at first. They are either down on their luck, stuck with nowhere to go, or lost within their own life and unable to fight their way out. None appear to be at any particular high point in their lives. Things are not random and capricious, though, and as some relationships start to unravel, new ones grow in their midst.
The horses are also fully fleshed characters. Mr. Boll Weevil, The Mahdi, Little Spinoza, Pelter, and Lord of Misrule each suffer loss or enjoy victory around the track, while experiencing the inevitable decline of their own lives. These race animals have seen better days and are sometimes just a few chemicals from collapse. Yet they are still noble.
Violence against people and animals, love both physical and platonic, and some mystical conjuring by Medicine Ed over the smoldering castrated parts of Little Spinoza bring all of the characters toward their inevitable ends. Some win, some lose.
This is an excellent story well-told. It takes time to read, with the absence of quotation marks and the colloquial dialect used throughout requiring attention be paid during the reading, but it allowed at least this reader to immerse himself in the tale. Slowing down and capturing the magic and mystery of the down and out horse tracks of the late 1970s with language that is rich without being heavy. The descriptive narrative is vivid (“a hill of horse manure . . . stubbled with pale dirty straw like a penitentiary haircut”) and well-suited.
Like horse racing itself, the people and beasts in Lord of Misrule learn a simple rule: sometimes to lose is to win.