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Retinue of misfits makes for a compelling ride.

THOUGH fairly well received in critical terms, American author Jaimy Gordon's first three novels did not make a huge splash, certainly not enough for the 66-year-old creative-writing teacher to consider giving up her day job at Western Michigan University at Kalamazoo.

Things changed a bit last year.

Gordon's fourth novel, Lord of Misrule, became the talk of the US publishing world when beating off competition from some of the heavy hitters of the literary scene to win the 2010 National Book Award for fiction.

It was a controversial decision.

Among those to have won the award in the past are giants such as William Faulkner, John Updike and Saul Bellow; among those beaten on the shortlist were high-profile writers such as Peter Carey and Lionel Shriver.

Published by McPherson in the States with an initial print run of just 2,000 (since quadrupled, and destined for more), Lord of Misrule must have been a rank outsider for such a prestigious award.

"Call it a Seabiscuit moment," said influential publishing blog Papercuts, while leading US racing journalist Andy Beyer used his Washington Post column to declare Lord of Misrule a "gem of a racing novel" - and that was before Gordon got her gong for a work described as "vivid, memorable and linguistically rich" by judges.

None of those witnesses was exaggerating. While I don't feel qualified to consider whether or not Lord of Misrule really deserved its underdog victory against all-comers from the world of letters, it is easier to appreciate how a wonderfully accomplished novel has earned such unexpected acclaim.

By turns poignant, lyrical, comic and suspenseful, Lord of Misrule is set deep in the underbelly of the ramshackle racing world of West Virginia in the early 1970s, where Gordon once worked as a groom and hotwalker (someone who walks racehorses after races) at Charles Town.

Lord of Misrule's retinue of misfits can only dream about the bright lights of Charles Town, however. Gordon's milieu is the fictional Indian Mounds racetrack, at the bottom end of the dilapidated leaky-roof circuit, a half-mile bull ring where the horses are drugged or lame - most of them are on the then-illegal "fast luck oil, bute, the horseman's Vitamin B" - and the trainers are crooked.

Into a corrupt and ruthless environment, where the only step down is the knacker's yard, comes college-educated, "frizzly-haired" Maggie Koderer. A relative innocent, she is helping to look after a four-horse string trained by her obsessive, potentially unhinged boyfriend Tommy Hansel, a "young fool" who sees Maggie as his twin, with everything such an intense connection implies for intertwined destinies. Down on his luck, Hansel has a scheme to rescue his failing stable. He has brought his four horses to the lowliest of venues and intends to get in fast, get out fast and make a killing at the betting windows on the way.

The newcomers soon draw attention to themselves, getting mixed up with a rich cast of racetrack miscreants, from wizened old groom Medicine Ed to leading trainer Joe Dale Bigg, a menacing figure whose regular appearances in a sinister black Cadillac offer distinctly cinematic shadings of the film noir variety.

Employing an ambitious form via several different narrative voices, this is a stylistic triumph. Gordon reveals a well-attuned ear for colloquial racetrack patois, conveying an authentic idiom and dialect, particularly in passages relating to the old 'gyp' trainer Deucey and her one-horse string, or Medicine Ed with his voodoo potions and homespun wisdom.

Lord of Misrule, the "devil horse" backed by mob money from Nebraska, is one of four racehorses lending their names to sections of the book alongside the flashy Mr Boll Weevil, neurotic Little Spinoza and aristocratic old-timer Pelter. These equine characters are no less well drawn than their human counterparts.

Mickey Finns are administered, a horse is killed Godfather-style in retribution for a perceived affront, the most dignified character is the racetrack financier - a loan shark, with waning influence. Throw in a bit of casual sex and drugs and you could be forgiven for thinking it is a case of so far, so Dick Francis - or, less successfully, any of the imitators who have made their way down a similar road to diminishing returns.

But Lord of Misrule, a memorable visit to racing's last-chance saloon, is a different beast. Often racing fiction is of interest merely because of its subject matter rather than any literary merit. Gordon has pulled off an improbable triumph by amply demonstrating that one need not preclude the other. Thoroughly recommended.

Nicholas Godfrey
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Jan 9, 2011
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