Horse racing is known as "The Sport of Kings", and to the general public this is true. Millionaire owners race their well-bred horses for huge purses and glory at the Kentucky Derby, Breeders' Cup, and other major races, and the rich get richer as they retire their star horses to the farm and make more money off stud fees. Many books, movies, and TV programs, both fiction and nonfiction, have been produced to cover this very public side of the racing business, the side the sport is most proud of and wants to present to the mainstream media, most recently in the form of Disney's feel-good "Secretariat" movie. In her latest novel, "Lord of Misrule", Jaimy Gordon goes to the complete opposite end of the pay scale, a fictitious half-mile cheap track in the northern panhandle of West Virginia, where the name of the game is not easy money but survival, doing whatever it takes to get an edge and make a buck from the meager purses and the betting windows, where there is never a happy ending.
Gordon sets the stage: a hard-luck track called Indian Mound Downs in the early 1970's, before the expansion of off-track and simulcast wagering, when each track relied almost exclusively on live audiences for the betting handle. Mob involvement in the sport was still rampant, with ringers and fixed races employed to fleece the betting public. Gordon introduces the backstretch players in this no-win game: trainers Tommy Hansel and Deucey Gilbert, groom "Medicine Ed" named for his skills with medications both legal and illegal, blacksmith "Kidstuff", stall superintendent "Suitcase" Smithers, rookie groom and Tommy's girlfriend Maggie Koderer, and the gangsters Two-Tie and Joe Dale Bigg. Gordon vividly describes the backstretch environment as the dirty, downtrodden place it can be and how its inhabitants are trapped here because it's safe and familiar to them.
Hansel's plan is to ship in four sure-fire winners, run them against the weak local competition and win at long odds, then get out of town. The book is divided into 4 parts, each covering one of these horses: Mr. Boll Weevil, Little Spinoza, Pelter, and Lord of Misrule. Of course the tight-knit backstretch community is on to him almost immediately, and word gets around such that everybody, including the mob, hammers his horses at the windows depressing their odds. The final race in the story brings everything full-circle, with a result the reader should have seen coming but kept wishing would not.
Gordon's writing style is unique. She seamlessly switches between third person and second person narration, allowing the reader to assume the point of view of one of the major characters. There are no quotation marks used in the entire text, forcing the reader to determine from the context where narration ends and character dialog begins. And to complete the package, she employs the backstretch "patois", intentionally misspelling words to stress how the characters at a West Virginia track would actually pronounce them.
With her National Book Award winning novel, Gordon has written an interesting portrayal of backstretch life in the 1970's, a story not usually told as horse racing seeks to present itself in a positive light to the non-racing public. Every sport has its minor leagues and Gordon shows that although life may not be glamorous, it need not be dull. Fans of horse racing fiction will enjoy this slice of life story about the unique characters of the backstretch and the horses they care for in order to produce the product we bet on every day.
Lord of Misrule has a list price of $25.00 and can be purchased from Amazon.com for $15.00.
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