I read for a living. There is nothing romantic about that, it only means that I read all the time and that I don’t often read the things I really want to read. And while an undying curiosity for books propels me forward in the quest for the unusual, the truly remarkable and outstanding, I rarely get excited about a book.

So my interest was piqued when, in October, the National Book Foundation announced its fiction finalists for the National Book Awards (NBA) 2010. Two out of the five nominations came from small presses, as if the judges wanted to send a message to the increasingly corporate book industry. One of those nominations was from venerable Coffee House Press. The other was from McPherson Press in Hudson, New York, a company so tiny that when you call and ask for material the person who answers the phone will most likely be the publisher, Bruce McPherson. None of the fine books it has published for more than 35 years now had ever been nominated for an NBA.

I had never heard of Jaimy Gordon—nor, it seems, had most of my publishing industry peers. The Wall Street Journal ran an article on her after the nominations, and an early review of Lord of Misrule appeared on November 11 in the Daily Racing View which, at least to my knowledge, does not have a strong track record for literary reviews.

Photo: Brian Widdis for the Wall Street Journal

Since mid-October, I had found out that Gordon hailed from Maryland and lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she teaches creative writing. That she had written three previous novels, all published by McPherson, which garnered critical praise, award nominations, and literary fellowships. That she was born in 1945 (or 1944, depending on where you look) and, not unimportantly, that she worked at a horse racing track in western Maryland for a few years before getting an academic degree. (This bit of information was emphasized by the Daily Racing View.) Apparently, she had been at work on Lord of Misrule since the late 1990s.

By the time the awards ceremony rolled around, I had also torn through the novel itself—literally in one sitting—and it had instantly became my favorite dark horse for the prize. Still, I was floored to see it win, happily so. I hate to bet even in an Oscars pool because I always pick what I am most passionate about instead of what I think is most likely to win. Which is usually a sure way to lose.

Lord of Misrule is a rather short novel, set at Indian Mound Downs, a fictitious dingy race track on the West Virginia/Ohio border in the early 1970s. (I had no idea that West Virginia and Ohio share a border – they do.) In other words, it is such a remote setting that there really is no reason why anyone should be able to relate to the story. We meet a bunch of scarred, crazy, only sometimes funny losers who more or less live in the stables, or in nearby trailers. They are disillusioned, tired, broken, but they all have a passion for horses. Or know how to make a business out of them. Or both. The horses are every bit as disillusioned, tired, broken and losing as they are.

Medicine Ed, in his early seventies, has spent his life grooming and warming up horses for others, limping from having been kicked by one of them many years earlier. He knows a thing or two about herbs and spells, and nothing going on around the track fools his sharp eye. So when pretty young Maggie Koderer breezes in from out of nowhere and haughtily demands stables for the five horses her no-good boyfriend Tommy is bringing in a trailer, Ed smells trouble. The novel follows these three throughout a year, cleverly divided into four “races.” It quickly turns out that, in it’s second-class way, this is as tightly controlled and rigged a race track as any, firmly in the grasp of one Joe Dale Bigg, the leading trainer, who always seems to find ways to get the horses over the finish line in the order that suits his bets. Until Maggie, Ed, and the spooky old “lady gyp” Deucey Gifford get in his way with their horses.

Ah, the horses. Their personalities shine through the narrative as beautifully nuanced as those of the humans around them, even though they don’t get their own say. (For me, there is hardly anything worse than talking or narrating animals in a novel for grownups!) Instead, we see them through the eyes of the human cast, between whom the narrative shifts effortlessly, giving them distinct, unmistakable voices. Perhaps Medicine Ed is my favorite narrator, revealing himself, through his own words, as an African American with roots further South. Or perhaps my favorite narrator is another old man, the generous and caring Two Tie, a “racetrack financier” by his own reckoning, who lives across the river bridge, in Ohio, since he had a brush with West Virginia law and has been banished from the track (this is where the border becomes important). Two Tie’s two worries in life are his aging German shepherd, Elizabeth—another marvelously drawn and complex animal—and young Maggie who, unbeknownst to her, is Two Tie’s niece and whom he vows to protect, with fatal consequences for everybody. Bits of Tarantino-like all-out but still slapstick violence start to creep into the story and keep building until the final race, with centers on the former champion, Lord of Misrule, who has come to the track to run his last race. The apocalyptic finale (and no, I won’t give it away) is one of the most breathtaking scenes I have read in years.

So what makes this so good? It certainly shows the mature hand of an experienced, accomplished writer. All the characters are right, and there are not too few and not too many of them. All the elements are in balance; the humans and the animals mirroring each other without getting in each other’s way. The pacing is terrific; the plot propels you forward so that this never feels like a heavy, “literary” read. There is not one word too much or too little; the writing is masterful in that sparse, economic way that makes great American writers—not great women writers, mind you, just great writers, period. And while this is a book about a bunch of losers at a second-tier horse track in West Virginia, circa 1970, it is, of course, not about that at all. No more than Frank Bascomb’s travails, so aptly detailed by Richard Ford, are about a sportswriter turned real estate agent in New Jersey in the last decades of the twentieth century, and no more than Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy is about a couple of ranch hands in New Mexico in the 1930s. It is, no more and no less, another of those rare and acute studies of the human condition, timeless, tragic, moving, while being firmly rooted in a place and a time brought to life for the reader’s pleasure. Gordon is more or less of the same generation as the two aforementioned writers, and it is deeply satisfying to see her novel, as accomplished as any of theirs, recognized by this year’s NBA jury and thus ingrained in America’s literary memory for many decades to come.

And now go out and buy Lord of Misrule as a holiday gift for yourselves and for all your friends, female or male. Never mind all of the novel’s literary qualities, it’s as much just a fabulous, riveting romp of a read! And, while you are at it, ask your local independent bookseller about more under-publicized gems published by independent small presses that she (or he) may have in stock or be able to order for you.

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  • Paul Dunkel December 3, 2010 at 8:36 am

    I’m a horseplayer and read Andy Beyer’s review of “Misrule” in the Racing Form…I usually get my reading tips in the NYTimes’ Book Review but what the heck. I felt like Beyer gave me an insider’s tip on a winning long shot by the time I finished the book, one day before Gordon won the BIG PRIZE. This novel is up there at the front of the pack with “Seabiscuit” and “Horse Heaven” – and they are the three best books with equine leads. (Did you notice they were all written by women.) I’m sending my ex-wife a copy of “Lord” for Christmas; she hated my gambling fix but loved “Seabiscuit” and has a Master’s in English so I know it will be money well spent.

    And…I thought you wrote a terrific review yourself.
    Paul Dunkel

  • Elizabeth W November 29, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    Looks interesting! I requested it at the library (running out of bookshelf space = being frugal about books!)
    Once I get it, I’ll see how my review compares 🙂

  • Laura Sillerman November 29, 2010 at 9:43 am

    As always, Agnes has moved us to where she dwells– this time between the covers of what sounds like an extraordinary book that I intend to give to many, myself included. Thank you, Agnes for the beautifully rendered recommendation and commendation. You may read for a living, but clearly you could write for one as well.