Friday, April 5, 2013

Douglas Messerli | Horse Sense (on Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule)

horse sense

Jaimy Gordon Lord of Misrule (Kingston, New York: McPherson & Company, 2010)

The dark horse winner of the 2010 National Book Awards, Jaimy Gordon's sixth book of fiction, is, like most of her others, a brilliant piece of writing. One can only wonder how Gordon, a professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, has come up with so much information about the dirty world of cheap horse racing—where horses on their last legs are not just raced but may be claimed by others for a small price—that we totally believe in her credibility and her having captured these small-time gamblers' and mobsters' voices.
      The very list of characters, Medicine Ed, Kidstuff, lady "gyp" Deucey Gifford, Suitcase Smithers, Two-Tie, and Joe Dale Bigg, sounds right out of Damon Runyon. Yet, while Runyon's figures, all obvious stereotypes of street-smart hipsters, seem bigger than life, Gordon's characters seem relatively "real," and, in that respect, involve us emotionally. I felt real caring for the aging Medicine Ed, and was almost shocked at Two-Tie's murder, where he dies gently stroking his dog Elizabeth's fur. In part, it is Gordon's ability to capture the rhythms and patterns of their speech. Consider, for example, a paragraph from one of the numerous chapters written from the voice of Medicine Ed:

                       The way Medicine Ed hear it, Joe Dale Bigg run the horse off
                       and so he was Deucey's but he wasn't Deucey's, wasn't nobody's
                       horse right now. A Speculation grandson and looking for a home!
                       Jesus put me wise. Now, what was the name of this boy? Medicine
                       Ed couldn't recall. For all his fancy blood he had an ankle almost as
                       big as he was, but that wasn't what cause him to lose his home. It
                       was Bigg, Joe Dale Bigg's boy, one day when Biggy was helping
                       Fletcher the dentist in the back of the horse's stall and the horse
                       pinned and about killed him. Biggy what you can simple, a gorilla-size
                       child-for-life, and now he was back from the industrial school from
                       Pruntytown. Joe Dale Big thought he better be shed of the animal
                       before something go down.

     It's all there in the Gertrude Stein-like reversals of logic ("he was Deucey's but he wasn't Deucey's"), the localisms ("Jesus put me wise"), the exaggerated metaphors ("he had an ankle almost as big as he was"), and the colloquialisms ("before something go down"): real horse sense. Medicine Ed speaks like a true human being might in an original language (although I do keep hearing Walter Brennan behind my back) that Gordon has perfectly rendered.
     Into this dark underside of the gambling world come two relatively bright young figures, Tommy Hansel, an ex-car salesman, and his new girl, Maggie Koderer, who previously wrote on food for a small city newspaper. Neither seems to have much experience with horses, but Hansel, who has somehow gotten his hands on several horses, intends to enter them each in races, win quickly and get out before anyone has dreamed of claiming them. On the surface the animals look worn out and not worth much, but Hansel, in a slow descent into horse-racing madness, truly believes in luck. He is convincing enough that Maggie has gone along for the ride, intensely caring for the horses, mucking out their stalls, brushing, feeding, taping, and sleeping with them as if she has done it all her life. She's also a quick learner, and easily picks up methods from Medicine Ed and others on how to better care for them.
     The Lord of Misrule is organized around four races, each named after one of the central horses: Mr. Boll Weevil, Little Spinoza, Pelter, and Lord of Misrule. Some win, some lose, some even tragically die, but the real heart of the fiction concerns how Maggie becomes increasingly woven into the lives of everyone around her. A frank and openly sexual woman, Maggie—the sister of Ursie, the central character in Gordon's previous work, Bogeywoman—discovers, both comically and somewhat tragically, that the individuals with whom she now shares her life embody simple humanity, comic stupidity, hate, madness, and finally, murderous passions that stir up a tornado of emotions while proving to the reader that Maggie has more courage and pluck than anyone else.
     Although, by book's end, Maggie returns to her absurd job of writing Menus by Margaret for the Winchester Mail, she remains in nearly everyone's memory; certainly she will never leave mine. Medicine Ed, perhaps Gordon's most memorable male figure in this fiction, again quietly sums it up:

                           Now that she was gone and out of his bidness, he had to give
                           this much to the frizzly hair girl, she must had did something
                           right with all that modern science she use to make it up as she
                           go along. Damn if Medicine Ed be caught petting and nursering
                           an animal like that, but he had taken sometimes to rubbing Pelter
                           up with cloths after he worked, like a young horse. Couldn't hurt,
                           and they had the time. The horse gone good for fifteen hundred,
                           and sometimes when they walking the shedrow like now eye-balling
                           each other like now, he was careful to remember into the horse that
                           the Mound has claimers at 1250 too. It's still another place left
                           for them two to go, even if it is down.

Los Angeles, March 3, 2011
Reprinted from Rain Taxi, Vol 20, no. 2 (Summer 2011).

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