A crowd of about 30 filled the back of BookCourt in Cobble Hill last night to hear Jaimy Gordon read from and talk about her National Book Award winning novel, Lord of Misrule. Earlier in the day, Gordon learned that the book was named a finalist for the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award, presented by Castleton Lyons and Thoroughbred Times.
Gordon read several excerpts from the novel, focusing on Little Spinoza, the well-bred but difficult grandson of a racing legend who has been bought by three backstretch workers from the leading trainer of the small West Virginia track at which they all work. The excerpts highlighted several of the main characters – Maggie, Medicine Ed, Joe Dale Biggs – and gave the audience a glimpse of their personalities and their quirks, as well as of some of the novel’s themes.
A number of those who showed up had already read the novel, and while many – nearly all – had been to the racetrack, the first question was about the sense of inevitable doom that one reader saw in the book. Gordon had invited Joe Drape and me to ask and take questions with her, and this first question alluded specifically to what happens to horses. In light of Drape’s recent article on the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, the early focus on the evening was on the grimmer side of horse racing, but Gordon didn’t allow it to stay there, sharing with listeners her love of the backstretch and of racing. “I can’t let myself get one of those racing channels,” she offered, “or I’d never get anything done.”
She talked of her own years on the backstretch, of finding her way there, as her character Maggie does, by following a “handsome, charismatic” trainer, and of leaving her job at a small newspaper to work with horses. “I had to leave the track after three years,” she explained, “because if I didn’t then, I knew I never would.”
Choosing her graduate school program by its proximity to the racetrack – “Brown was close to Lincoln Downs; there was nothing near the University of Iowa” – Gordon unfortunately seldom gets to the racetrack these days, but she hopes to hit a few this year as she continues to travel to support the novel; she’ll be in Lexington on April 13th for the presentation of the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award.
Gordon talked about the theme of “twinning” in the novel. Trainer Tommy Hansel has a lost twin; Little Spinoza runs one bad, one good race; the Mahdi and Mr Boll Wevil resemble each other. She suggested that this theme represents her own Manichean view of racing, her awareness of its dark side and her delight in the horses and the sport.
Asked about her presentation of the animals in the book, both the horses and the dog Elizabeth, by an audience member who described that presentation as remarkably “un-anthropomorphic,” Gordon laughed with relief. “As I was writing,” she said, “I thought that I was being too anthropomorphic.” She spoke with particular fondness of Pelter, Maggie’s favorite horse, and recalled the horse in her life on which she modeled the old claimer in the novel.
Gordon doesn’t shy from disclosing that Maggie is based on herself as a young woman; now, she says, she sees more of herself in other characters. “I started the novel ten years ago, and I got a little sick of Maggie,” she admitted of the character whose type has been in other of Gordon’s works. “I think more like Medicine Ed and Two-Tie, looking back at life, wondering if the choices I’ve made were the right ones.”
Given the prodigious success of this novel and the acclaim that it’s brought Gordon, the author is about as far from the regretful, unreliable lives of those two men as Keeneland is from Indian Mound Downs. Perhaps that too is part of the dichotomy with which Gordon infused the novel, part of the conflict that many of us feel about the sport.
“Racing is tragic and painful,” Gordon acknowledged, “and I love it.”
Click here for my interview with Gordon in Thoroughbred Times.
Lord of Misrule is now available in paperback, published by Knopf Doubleday. The photograph of Jaimy Gordon is copyrighted by Peter Blickle and used with permission.