Jaimy Gordon‘s Lord of Misrule is this year’s National Book Award winner in fiction, and there are a few obvious reasons why. It’s a finely considered portrait of a particular time and place—specifically a downtrodden West Virginia racetrack in the 1970s, where scam artists drive boatlike Cadillacs and everybody is placing too much hope on some B-list horse or other. Another part of the novel’s appeal is that its scam artists aren’t particularly artistic; Gordon has an shrewd eye for the emotional and financial clumsiness of each of her characters, and she’s skilled at exposing their foibles without holding them up to mockery. Mostly: Toward the end, when a group of two-bit mobsters and track habitues squabble over a ridiculous abduction, it’s hard not to think of William Faulkner‘s “Spotted Horses,” another horse story that featured people so thickheaded that part of the fun was recognizing that a) these scheming characters all deserved each other and b) you weren’t them.
But what’s mostly interesting about Lord of Misrule—the only thing that conceivably could have catapulted it to prizewinning status—is how it sounds. Early on, Maggie, the ostensible heroine of the novel, examines a horse:
The right front cannon bone on the black horse resembled an old ragged galosh right down to the lumpy buckles. Blister, cautery, everything had been done. And in Maggie’s eyes he had a giant prehistoric head—armor plated, scarred like a box and ugly as a rhinoceros.
That gets at Gordon’s feel for alliteration, rhythm, and (especially) simile—she has a tremendous knack for the image that exposes the rot and contempt in the world she describes. (“The game was funny, not funny ha-ha, funny like green lunchmeat.” “Natalie, the New Rochelle auto parts chainstore divorcee, with her big pink open mouth like a toilet seat.”) But those quotes don’t quite get at the dreamlike quality that Gordon strives for, how she counterbalances the petty despair of most her characters with the strangely attractive world of the track and the horses. Maggie again:
The racetrack asleep at night is a live and spooky place, especially if you think somebody might jump out at you, and she did think so—small world that ends at a fence, the dark blue restless air fragrant with medicinals, Absorbine, liniment, pine tar—everywhere light chains clanking, water buckets creaking and sloshing, round glimmers of water, horses masticating or snorting out dust, straw rustling, skinny cats glimpsed everywhere but only for a moment, always in motion, noiseless.
Better still is how she writes about the horses themselves: One stands “in his bucket of ice as cool as a Tiffany cocktail stirrer, dreaming in black jewelry eyes of emerald alfalfa and clover of Burmese jade.” But Gordon’s ambition extends beyond just crafting a prose poem about horse racing—she’s also chosen to pick up the additional task of weaving her own voice into the voices of her other characters. Chapters focused on Maggie’s boyfriend, Tommy, tend to be narrated in second person—a way to intimately show how his sense of ownership of horses extends to women as well. (“…you could get to her through her body. It was a black, rich, well-watered way, between rock faces. The word podzol came to mind. The word humus. Soil. Slut.”) With Medicine Ed, an aging black groom, Gordon plays with dialect (“And then he forgot about drinking, found he grew ponderful in the evenings on his own anymore, didn’t need no likka, no nothing”)—but tentatively, never diving so deep into his character that she has to choose between his voice and hers.
Reviewing the novel for the Washington Post, Jane Smiley suggested that this range of voices “allows for immediacy but not for perspective. The wisdom these characters offer is limited by the narrowness of their world.” But that narrowness is largely the point—Gordon’s task is to make her characters sympathetic in spite of their behavior, in spite of their lack of understanding of a world away from the track. (Only Maggie appears to have once lived a life not defined by horses, writing about food for a newspaper supplement.) What Gordon has really sacrificed in focusing so much on voice isn’t “perspective” so much as plot. Ultimately the story turns on little more than the outcomes of particular races, and Gordon herself admits to the preposterousness of the kidnapping storyline in the final third of the novel: “Nowadays you couldn’t just let some Black Bart tie you to the railroad tracks and walk away and leave you. The age demanded signs of a struggle even from a corpse.” And Black Bart-ish it is. Of course, it’s not just “the age” that demands signs of a struggle—novels demand it too. But Lord of Misrule‘s chief flaw is that it can’t quite couple a convincing struggle to the beauty of its language.