It has been nominated for the PEN-Faulkner award and achieved the kind of fame authors dream of. But back before Jaimy Gordon’s racetrack novel “Lord of Misrule” had even won the National Book Award as the longshot or dark horse — pick your racing metaphor — people recommended it to me because of its subject matter.
I am one of those women who never outgrew horses, and the depictions of them in “Lord of Misrule” are excellent; knowing, yet not anthropomorphic. But as much as I enjoyed reading about racehorses, the book fascinated me much more because of its varied depictions of Jews.
Lately, American culture has handed us some interesting Jewish representations. Noah “Puck” Puckerman on Fox’s hit show “Glee” has inherited the mantle formerly worn by Juan Epstein of “Welcome Back Kotter”; delinquent Puck puts the Jew in juvie. And on the literary-novel rather than network-television end of the spectrum, “Lord of Misrule” also contains a Jewish outlaw, an elderly low-rent gangster named Two-Tie, a Runyonesque, familiar figure, seen in many iterations of the historical gangsters Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, such as Tony Soprano’s adviser Hesch. (Hesch was, in fact, the one who got Tony involved in horse racing.)
The Jewish identity of Two-Tie’s great-niece, Maggie Koderer, proves less recognizable and more complex. Her love affair with a down-at-the-heels but raffish trainer named Tommy Hansel provides the novel’s engine, as Maggie navigates the world of a seedy West Virginia track, fueled by her relationship with Tommy as well as her newfound affection for racehorses. Gordon, who is Jewish and was born in Baltimore, set “Misrule” in the 1970s, worlds away from the glamorous racetracks and bluegrass farms of the recently Disney-depicted world over which Triple Crown-winner Secretariat reigned at the same time. Two-Tie, Tommy and Maggie, along with many other well-drawn characters, inhabit a place characterized by loss and dirt, where horses are drugged and people are cheated.
The novel’s only hope, in fact, lies in Maggie, and although she, like any good heroine, possesses pluck and intelligence, her transcendence comes not from these qualities, but from her Jewishness.
In Herman Wouk’s 1950s landmark novel “Marjorie Morningstar,” suburban housewifery looms as the appropriate station for Jewish women, but it doesn’t suit Maggie in the slightest. Before she meets Tommy, she writes homey recipes for a small newspaper as “Aunt Margaret,” but the name is facetious; she’s an excellent cook but a terrible housekeeper, far more attuned to the immediate needs of her intense sexual relationship with Tommy and the beautiful and somewhat hopeless horses they run at the track than to any kind of domestic planning.
Tommy believes Maggie “had this highborn air, this came of being a Jew, of an ancient, select, and secretive people. … Whether it made her easy or uneasy to count herself one of this family, she was of it — she could bother to count or not, she had that luxury — and a great old family was deeply to be coveted. So much the better if they were an outsider race and small in number.”
His definition of Jewishness melds biblical intonation — ancient, family, coveted — but also includes words key to a racetracker: outsider, race, number.
But Maggie refrains from defining it at all. To the African-American groom she meets, Maggie remains just a “white girl,” a notion underscored by her deracinated first name. And where Two-Tie thinks, “family comes first,” emphasizing the stereotypically Jewish devotion to family, Tommy has to remind Maggie to call her father on Rosh HaShanah. Two-Tie’s favorite memory of Maggie as a child includes her mistaking the columns of a racing daily for Hebrew, an image which not only conveys her deliberate obtuseness, but blends images of Jewishness and racetrack life as similarly incomprehensible to outsiders.
In the end, Gordon offers a rare glimpse of one of Maggie’s own thoughts, making the point that despite her recklessness, her understanding of herself as different from those around her is what
offers her the possibility of progress: “I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but a girl like me — I can’t be playing around with gangsters.” Maggie knows she doesn’t belong, but unlike the other characters, she never gets more detailed in her description of herself than “a girl like me.” Her refusal to dwell on the Jewishness that preoccupies those around her allows her to imagine more than one way forward.
The title of “Lord of Misrule” comes from the name of a racehorse in the book that recalls the mythical carnival king who presides over an upside-down world. Although Gordon’s novel is set 30 years ago, its complex portrayal of Maggie Koderer speaks more to a current model of Jewishness, where tired stereotypes are similarly upended, and, like a broken-down racehorse, finally useless.