Review: Lord of Misrule

By David Herman, January 13, 2012
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By Jaimy Gordon
Quercus, £12.99

According to JewishBoston.com, number six in the Top 10 Moments for Jewish Women in 2010 was Jaimy Gordon winning the 2010 National Book Award for Fiction for Lord of Misrule. I don't wish to be critical but Jewish Boston.com need to get out more.

First of all, there's the question of the National Book Award for Fiction. Which of the outstanding Jewish-American writers of the past 15 years have won it? Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nathan Englander or Nicole Krauss? No, not one. Let's go back a while. How about Catch-22, American Pastoral or anything by Norman Mailer? No, again.

The book itself is set in the early 1970s in a rundown race track in West Virginia. The opening chapters are full of old-timers with names like Suitcase Smithers and Medicine Ed. Think the worst of Steinbeck meets bad John Ford.

Then at last the Jews arrive. First, we get Two-Tie, a small-time Jewish gangster straight out of Damon Runyon, who runs an all-night card game. What exactly a Jew like Two-Tie ("May I ask, said Two-Tie, what's so geferlich about his offer?") is doing in this goyishe part of West Virginia, I couldn't work out. Presumably to add some colour, along with the bad sex scenes and the fun names (did I mention Two-Tie's friend Kidstuff?).

And then there's Maggie, daughter of Two-Tie's niece, with "her lowborn air" which "came of being a Jew, an outcast, a gypsy, and not giving one goddamn". She turns up with her boyfriend, horse-trainer Tommy Hansel, and gets in trouble with local gangster, Joe Dale Bigg, who is altogether meaner and nastier than Two-Tie. And, of course, there are lots of horses, scams about horse-racing and a lot of race-track lingo.

Despite Two-Tie and Maggie, this is not a remotely Jewish book. Nor is it a very good book. How it beat Nicole Krauss's Great House to the National Book Award is just one reason why grown-ups should despise book prizes.

But it does have its moments, when the writing takes off and leaves the silly names and horse-race stuff behind.The last word should be left to Maggie: "On the last little spit of being human, staring through rags of fog into the not human, where you weren't supposed to be able to see let alone cross, she could make a kind of home."

David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer

    Last updated: 12:37pm, January 13 2012