[Reviewed by Sarah Melton]
In hindsight, I may have been the wrong person to review a book such as Gordon’s gritty, dark tale of corruption in the world of equestrian racing, circa 1970’s Virginia. For instance, I wasn’t fond of horse racing to begin with. Not that this story argued the already long-ingrained belief I had about the abuse of horses for the sake of money and prestige – in fact, it accented that issue throughout – but some of the terminology and references to the sport weren’t really made clear to those who didn’t follow racing to begin with, and the use of it made the overall plot of the layers of conspiracy and betrayal between the main characters that much harder to figure out.
Also, the writing style – in particular, the absence of any quotation marks or other signifying punctuation to separate one speaker from another (or a speaking character from their own internal thoughts) made the novel a particularly difficult read. I had to read several paragraphs of dialogue over and over, just to figure out who was talking, then again (if they were talking about racing in technical terms again) to figure out what they were actually getting at with their conversation. I realize this was an intentional style by the writer, perhaps to make the conversation seem to flow to the reader, but to this reader in particular, it had exactly the opposite effect. Not every reader will feel this way – in fact, the very fact that the novel has won a National Book Award shows that someone (likely even a majority) would find this particular writing style much more favorable than I did. Perhaps I’m just set in my ways as far as formatting and style goes, or need it spelled out for me to figure out who is saying what in any given conversation…or perhaps, as I originally thought, the very style of the dialogue was so perplexing that it detracted from the heart of the story – the characters themselves.
Speaking of the characters, Lord of Misrule follows five specifically, most of which are jaded, down-on-their-luck, and more than just a little desperate to better themselves by any means necessary. There’s the big bully of the track, Joe Dale Bigg, so obsessed with power and status that he uses every tactic but kindness to get his way. The irony of his name is not lost on me – beneath the big show of influence he flaunts, lies a tiny, insecure shell of the man he should have been. Tommy Hansel, a schemer and horse owner who repeatedly date-rapes and abuses his somewhat naive girlfriend Maggie, is made out to be the lesser of many evils in this dangerous trade. Even the likeable elderly groom, Medicine Ed, has a dark past (from whence his nickname came) that caused the death of some the horses he spent his life grooming. Kidstuff the blacksmith, old lady “gyp” Deucey Gifford, stall superintendent Suitcase Smithers all show the wear of the trade (some better than others), and it’s all Maggie can do to merely survive in this hero-less land, no matter how many times she falls into the role of the near-helpless victim. Granted, there is one rather brutal scene in which Maggie manages to rescue herself using only sheer determination and a horse, but even then it ultimately ends in her escaping into the clutches of organized crime to keep from becoming another sad statistic. If you’re looking for a happy ending where characters learn valuable lessons and it all works out ok in the end…this isn’t your book.
That being said, I will say that the writer does an excellent job portraying the desperation, anger and resolve that emanate from so many of her characters – while there’s no real hero throughout the book, there’s no absolute villain either. Even Bigg, who is detestable on many levels, is seen merely as a weak-minded human corrupted with power (of which there are plenty in the world), instead of the simple caricature of a villain that some writers would use. You definitely don’t end up sympathizing with him at any point, but neither does it seem so unreasonable that a person who does the things he does to others would come from what was once an ordinary man, no different than any other before life itself brought him to that point. It’s that kind of honest, down-to-earth portrayal of human frailty and perseverance that makes me see how a book I had so little enjoyment reading would be considered far more enjoyable to read by others.
So while I can’t say with any honesty that I would read such a story again, I will not rule out that it would be enjoyable to others. Like the Lord of Misrule that the horse within was named for, it’s impossible to gauge what another’s reaction would be to a work such as this. This writer plays by her own rules, follows her own lead…and that, above all, I respect and admire.