Lord of Misrule Teacher’s Guide

By Jaimy Gordon

Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

READERS GUIDE

The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Lord of Misrule, Jaimy Gordon’s award-winning novel of the dusty, dark, and beautiful world of small-time horse racing.

Introduction

The winner of the 2010 National Book Award, Lord of Misrule is a captivating excursion into a the lives of small-time schemers and big-time dreamers—men and women whose passions, perfidy, and obsessions are as highly charged and unpredictable as the horse races at the center of their world.
 
Using wonderfully idiosyncratic language and vibrant imagery, Jaimy Gordon transforms Indian Mound Downs, a dilapidated racetrack in West Virginia, into a theater of grand drama and quirky comedy featuring a remarkable cast of characters both human and equine. Maggie Koderer, an eager newcomer to the racing scene, arrives at the Mound with four gifted but pitiful-looking horses owned by her lover, Tommy Hansel. Hansel plans to run the horses before anyone knows how good they are, cash in his bets, and quickly move on. Medicine Ed, an aging groom and longtime practitioner of arcane magic and spells, takes Maggie under his wing. Maggie also has a secret guardian—the loan shark Two-Tie, who would fit right into a Damon Runyon story, has a very personal reason for protecting her. Over the course of the racing season, the characters pursue private desires and plans, but it is the horses that ultimately determine their fates. And, as Gordon makes clear, every horse racing at the Mound has a will and a personality all its own.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. What does Maggie’s arrival at Indian Mound Downs establish about the way things work at the track? What do Medicine Ed and Deucey’s reactions to Maggie demonstrate about the pecking order at the track? 

2. Why do Ed and Deucey put up with the deprivations and humiliations of their daily routines? What comforts or satisfactions does hanging out at the track provide?

3. What aspects of Maggie’s past and character account for her attraction to Tommy? What qualities make him appealing to her? What are the implications of her recognition that “He wasn’t quite right in the soul, really” [p. 22]? 

4. Deucey tells Maggie, “I wrote the book on two-faced false-hearted luck, girlie, anything you want to know about going it on your own at the races, come to me” [p. 23]. What roles does Deucey assume in Maggie’s life? What does she teach Maggie, either directly or by example, about being a woman in a man’s world?

5. In what ways does Medicine Ed embody the characteristics of racetrack habitués at every level, from owners to grooms, petty crooks to inveterate fans? What does he demonstrate about the opposing pulls of actual experience and the fantasies and hopes that shape our lives?  

6. Gordon has discussed the similarity between Medicine Ed and Two-Tie, describing them as “lonely and childless old men deeply tired of the daily work they do, facing their last years without the protection of family” [National Book Foundation interview with Bret Anthony Johnston]. What reasons does Two-Tie offer for the way his life turned out? In what ways does his Jewish background shape his identity and influence his worldview?

7. At the beginning of the novel, Maggie projects a girlish innocence and an eagerness to experience life. How does she change over the course of the novel? What light do her musings at the end of the novel [p. 289-90] shed on what she has lost and gained? What do her reactions to Tommy’s deterioration reveal about the woman she has become?

8. In a review in The Washington Post [November 16, 2010] Jane Hamilton wrote, “[Gordon’s] four horse characters—Mr. Boll Weevil, Little Spinoza, Pelter and Lord of Misrule—are bursting with personality.” From their names to their histories to their performances in races, how does Gordon bring out the distinctive qualities of each horse?  Does she avoid anthropomorphizing them?  What does the novel show about the gap between human assumptions and the horses’ innate intelligence and their accommodations to the regimens and expectations imposed by humans?

9. One critic called Maggie’s “relationship with horses the most erotic one in the book” [Bob Hoover, Philly.com 11/27/10]. Do the descriptions of Maggie’s tending to the horses (pp. 110, 133, and 199, for example) support this judgment? 

10. Luck is a central theme in Lord of Misrule.  For Tommy, “[luck] came because you called to it, whistled for it, because it saw you wouldn’t take no for an answer” [p 22]. According to Maggie, “A person had to see himself, or herself, as lucky not just once in a while, but plugged into a steady current of luck, like an electrical appliance. . . . People who thought they couldn’t lose—Joe Dale Bigg, for one—were some kind of machinery” [p. 159].  How are these different approaches or concepts reflected in the actions taken by Tommy and Bigg? Are any of the characters able to resist or defeat the whims of luck and chance? If so, what allows them to do so?

11. Most of the novel is written in the third person. How does Gordon make the thoughts and the conversational styles of each character distinct? Discuss her use of racetrack slang and nicknames, invented words, and dialect in bringing to life an unfamiliar milieu and its denizens. 

12. Why does Gordon switch to the second person in the chapters devoted to Tommy? What are the benefits and the limitations of this unusual narrative voice? Does it bring Tommy into sharper focus?  How does his self-image differ from the perceptions of others and in what ways does it confirm them? What do the intimate tone, uninhibited language, and graphic sexual descriptions of these sections add to the novel?

13. Does the structure of the novel—the chapter-by-chapter focus on particular horses and races—enhance the reader’s involvement with the story?  Does it help to illuminate the diverse factors that influence the characters’ actions? How does it affect the progress of the plot and the build-up to the final race?

14. Gordon weaves many literary and religious allusions into the story. The name of Hansel’s horse, the Mahdi (the redeemer of the world in Islamic religion), is one example; what other references can you identify? What literary motifs or narrative traditions are evoked in the accounts of the horses’ lineage [p. 114]; Tommy’s obsession with a long-lost twin [pp. 22, 160] and the “might-could-be twin brothers” Mr. Boll Weevil and the Mahdi [p. 43]; the description of Lord of Misrule [p. 217-219]; and Two-Tie’s relationships with Maggie and Donald?

15. Gordon’s writing style—her use of metaphor, poetic imagery, literary and religious allusions and references—is unusual in a novel about lowlifes and violent acts. Do you find the seemingly incompatible juxtaposition effective?

16. The world of thoroughbred horse racing has been the subject of several popular books and films, including Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling Seabiscuit.  What does Lord of Misrule share with other depictions of racing you have read or seen? What new insights does it provide into the racing community?


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About this Author

Jaimy Gordon teaches at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. She is the author of three previous novels, Bogeywoman, She Drove without Stopping, and Shamp of the City-Solo, and has published poetry, plays, short stories, and essays.  She has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College, and an Academy Award from the American Institute of Arts and Letters.

Suggested Reading

Bill Barich, Laughing in the Hills; Malcolm Braly, On the Yard; Nicholas Evans, The Horse Whisperer; Dick Francis, Crossfire; Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit; William Murray, Dead Heat; William Nack, Secretariat; Peter Shaffer, Equus; Jane Smiley, Horse Heaven
 
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