Jaimy Gordon was the dark horse in this year's National Book Awards, and she walked away in a long red dress clutching the prize for fiction. Rumor has it she screamed when she heard her name, and the name of her fourth novel, "Lord of Misrule," attached to the fiction prize. Her publisher, a small house in Kingston, N.Y., didn't see it coming either. They've been scrambling like crazy to print a lot more copies.
More proof that the things that interest us the most — Gordon's subjects often are long shots, risks, humans and animals sunk deep in the world's margins — lie coiled in our own fool selves. As for the readers and the prizes, well, it was bound to happen. In her novels, stories and poetry (especially her 1978 book-length story in free verse, "The Bend, the Lip, the Kid"), Gordon has pushed the limits of style — explored the empty places in her articulate characters and works — so that language drags meaning behind it like a fur coat trailing blood. Her language is so textured that her pages seem three-dimensional.
Consider these words from the very first pages of this novel: pebble, puddle, stubbled, woebegone and shuffling. Listen as the words pick up speed: clabbered, flimflam, wamble. You know you're on a dirt road somewhere, but where? At Indian Mound Downs, an old, second-class racetrack in West Virginia. Who's making all that noise? A ragtag community (in the least expensive sense of the term) of loan sharks, horse-traders, grooms and con men. As for the racetrack: "It was a complete world, but it was a flat world too — one pure unmitigated plane of being, all the way to the edge, where you fell off. Then it was all void, all menace."
Void and menace are the operating principles in "Lord of Misrule." First, it's hard to sort the men from the horses, so similar are their slaveries, their striving for nothing, their tendency to be ruled by lesser animals. Medicine Ed, 72, has been working with horses since he was 8. He administers the potions, legal and illegal, that twist the races into tomfoolery. This is done with a certain amount of blind skill — he has a way of seeing into people and horses and sensing the missing ingredients. But even this gift goes sour: "He can tie the bad luck off himself. But he can't make out to himself like he used to have done that it is a harmless goofer he mixing. He know the truth now. Harm is coming, it ain't his fault, but still he is doctoring so that hurt, when it come, it will go on others and not on him."
Along with Medicine Ed, there's Suitcase Smithers, who has a "drained cement color"; Joe Dale Biggs, the "perfumed, barbered, slug-lipped" financier; and Tommy Hansel, the young trainer, "wormwood green eyes, blueblack mustachios, torn silk shirts, pure theater."
And then there's Maggie, the 25-year-old groom who shares the center spotlight with two horses, Lord of Misrule and Pelter. She's an educated woman, doesn't quite know how she ended up in a place like this, in love with Tommy Hansel, a con man she'd never introduce to her father. At first you think she's a victim: "Old Deucey had spied into the heart of this young woman and seen there slavery of the man-woman kind. Medicine Ed could see the chains on the girl. They were thick and heavy as railroad couplings, but they lay in a loose necklace round her neck and shoulders. She was no little bitty silky thing. The weight of them chains had raised muscles on her."
This rich, soupy (as in primal soup, many ingredients) milieu that Gordon creates — all the names and hints of back story glimmering in the dust — serve to make a character shine, really shine, when he or she rises up and out. You hear chains popping all through this novel, little acts of will and big acts of self-determination. It's astonishing how quickly, with all this description, Gordon can get to a philosophical point or make a character unforgettable.
All of this makes "Lord of Misrule" a fun book to read, fun that comes not without its raw anxieties — the void at the edge of the track. It ends, of course, in a race, a duel between darkness versus light. Lord of Misrule, a horse resurrected from a truncated career to win a few races, "threw back his head, snorted out dust and rolled his eye at the other cheap horses. His black tail arched and, ugly as Rumpelstiltskin, he let drop great soft nuggets, part gold, part straw, all the way down the ramp."
Salter Reynolds is a writer in Los Angeles.