Maggie Koderer has abandoned her part-time job writing magazine articles about food to follow her boyfriend, horseman Tommy Hansel, into the world of bottom-end horse racing. Tommy has a scheme to race good horses at bad tracks, make some good fast money and then move on. The cheap hoods, losers and down-at-heel horses at Indian Mound Downs, the bottom-end race track where Lord of Misrule is set, don't exactly cooperate with Tommy's plans. That's not the most brilliant way of giving you the premise of the novel, but it'll do.
I really like this book. I'd planned on reading it because it won the National Book Award fiction prize this year, but when I learned that it was about horse racing, for God's sake, I hesitated. What do I care about horse racing? But I bought it anyway and I'm glad I did. Jaimy Gordon has assembled a fascinating cast of characters to tell a Beckettian/Steinbeckian story of less-than-best-laid plans gone awry. Gordon delivers her tale via four alternating narrative voices which all ring true enough, and I even liked the second-person voice of one character talking to himself in his deepening madness.
The plot is more-or-less the usual fare and the conflicts increase as the book progresses through four races, each more important than the last. The characters' lives become intertwined in startling and progressively violent ways. A person who reads for plot, that is, won't be bored because there's good sturdy developing action.
But there's a lot more here for readers who want more: Gordon's prose is careful, rhythmic and constantly forward-moving. Her characterizations of the horses are amazing and I found myself captivated by these individual (if wholly alien) beings. I don't know from horses, but Gordon let me see the animals and I could tell them all apart. That's some trick.
I read Lord of Misrule in a day and a half, which for me is movement at nearly the speed of light. Unputdownable, I think, is the term. And I realize that this is a wholly inadequate sort of review, but I don't really do reviews.
Here's the thing: this is a really good book, worthy of the award. The prose is alive and new, the characters (with, alas, the exception of the antagonist and his crew, who are a bit from Central Casting) are fresh and believable and surprising, and when I was reading I was delighted and felt like I was doing something important with my time. That's really all I ask from a book: my time was not wasted and my world has expanded a little bit.