Book Look - Lord of Misrule, Jaime Gordon
Back in Roman days, the Lord of Misrule presided over the celebration of Saturnalia, a holiday during which the ordinary rules of life were subverted - masters served their slaves, wives and husbands switched duties, etc. If there is a theme in this novel - and you have to look hard to find it - it's how casually (and sometimes cruelly) the lives and expectations of humans are subverted by the ultimate Lord of Misrule, fickle fate.
Appropriate that a story about the subverting of "sure things" should be set at a racetrack. What setting better lends itself to a tale of people needing desperately to believe they can exert some control over fate, only to discover otherwise? Tommy Hanson, the story's reagent, believes he can make a fast buck running ringers in a series of cheap claims races - only to see his best-laid plans thwarted right out of the gate. (Pun, sadly, intended.) Maggie, Tommy Hanson's girlfriend, carelessly indulges her penchant for violence and risk by hooking up with Tommy, confident that she can control whatever chaos ensues - only to find herself in a situation that she genuinely cannot control. Medicine Ed, an old groom at the dead-end racetrack where Tommy and Maggie wash up, believes his "goofer dust" can "magic" horses into winning - but finds himself paying a terrible price when he tries to use it. Meanwhile, various mobsters operate (mistakenly) under the arrogant delusion that they have the power to predetermine the winners of races; a rather decent gentleman by the name of Two-Tie believes (mistakenly) he will be able to protect his niece Maggie from herself (and in the process redeem a mistake he made years before - which doesn't happen either); a female jockey believes (mistakenly) that she can "sing" a washed-up "could-have-been" champion into winning; all of which culminates in a final stakes race in which fate truly has the last laugh, orchestrating the most improbable of all possible outcomes (which, don't worry, I won't spoil here, but be sure to appreciate the glorious chaos and irony of Gordon's big finale when it comes). Ultimately those characters who learn to bow to the whims of fate survive, those who insist on trying to control their own destiny come to bad ends (madness, death), and fate spins on, unflustered and unrushed, God's eternal hot-walking machine.
I mention that the book really is "about" something, because the vast majority of favorable reviews I've read don't even mention the plot, focusing almost entirely on the story's "Runyan-esque characters" and the author's "unique voice" - both of which I found so off-putting, I very nearly didn't finish this. With apologies to the National Book Award people, are you guys sure you weren't so dazzled by Ms. Gordon's literary furbelows - her faux-authentic racing lingo, her nervy employment of dialect, her flashy shifts in point of view (including whole chapters narrated in second person - there's something you don't see every day!), her fearless embracing of physical and spiritual ugliness, her disdain of quotation marks and other grammatical conventions - that you neglected to notice that extent to which these flourishes make the book laborious to read and distasteful to digest? Yes, I valued the humanity of Medicine Ed, Deucey, and the few other palatable characters in the novel; I appreciated the inherent nobility of the horses, selflessly sacrificing their sinews (though never their dignity) to fate; and I definitely teared up at Two-Tie's sacrifice. But even these weren't enough to offset the sense of general "yuckiness" left behind by the loathsomeness of the imagery (too much violence, bondage, humiliation, sweat, stench and snot!) and the moral turpitude of majority of characters in the story; my annoyance over the lack of quotation marks; or my frustration at the author for sacrificing good storytelling to the Gods of Modernism (or perhaps to the National Book Award gods, in this case).
Am not sure I've ever read a book over which opinions were so polarized - half the people loving it, the other half loathing it. I'm willing to come down somewhere in between - but having said that, am not sure I'll be reading anything else by Gordon in the future. This felt like way too much work for way too little reward; too much frosting over too little cake, if you will. Literary critics and book prize judges will have to fawn over Gordon's next tome without me.