To say that Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule was a dark horse in the running for the 2010 National Book Award for fiction would be an understatement. It shouldn’t even have been in the race. Published by a small literary press in Kingston, McPherson & Co., it had yet to be reviewed, and the official release date wasn’t until the day of the award ceremony.
Gordon, who will appear at SUNY-Ulster on Wednesday, November 9, had long been a writer’s writer but not a best-seller. By all accounts the book, a beguiling tale of people and horses at a seedy racetrack, wouldn’t even have existed but for the efforts of Bruce McPherson, who kept after her for ten years. It was a long long shot.
Nevertheless, when the winner was announced, shrieks emanated from the back of the room. The presenter quipped that smelling salts might be needed, and Jaimy Gordon in a long red dress began to make her way to the stage, shaking her head and muttering “Wow!” It looked like a long walk in the National Book Foundation’s online video.
“I’ve since heard they seat the winners far from the podium to throw them off,” she said in a phone interview with Alm@nac last week. “I actually enjoyed the chicken – you know, the rubber chicken they serve at those affairs! I could eat my dinner, thinking the judges must know they didn’t have to do any more for my career than they had already done in making me a finalist. They didn’t have to go any further out on a limb.”
Clearly surprised and unprepared, Gordon gave a dignified, delighted, brief thank-you speech. “I felt fantastic,” she said, when asked about that moment. “I knew my life would change. I don’t think of myself as a lucky person. For once I was the darling of the gods.”
Her life did change. Lord of Misrule is a literary best-seller, and Gordon has received overdue attention. “People in our country are fascinated with fame and celebrity and radical turns of luck like mine. In our culture, the average person identifies with the underdog who has had a huge stroke of luck, whether or not it’s deserved.”
The novel, set in 1970, is based on her three years of working on racetracks, starting when she was 24 years old. “Like Maggie in Lord of Misrule, I became the food editor of a small-town paper, a job I loved; and like Maggie, I soon fell in with a handsome, persuasive, unstable young horse trainer, and a few days later was mucking his stalls and walking his ‘hots.’ The two West Virginia racetracks where I started out – Charlestown and Shenandoah Downs – were crowded with cheap, sore horses, but I took to those horses right away, especially the used-up old stakes winners who were headed downwards in class.
“I always meant to write a novel about my racetrack experience, which even at the time struck me as having a mythy quality about it: the game-but-damaged horses, the humans desperately courting luck at such long odds and the tracks themselves, so wildly out of keeping with the grandiose dreams the racetrack life always inspires. But it took me 40 years to get around to finishing the book.”
Still, she conjures that long-ago time with a poetic clarity and brilliant use of a singing slang. “I’d read Damon Runyon with delight,” Gordon explained. “When I got to the track, I thought, ‘Wow, they actually talk like Damon Runyon.’ The racetrack is a great incubator of its own slang.”
Praised for writing so well of outsiders, she says, “As a Jew, a loner, a solipsist, the first in my elementary school class to wear glasses and for a hundred other reasons, I have always felt like an outsider myself.”
The horses, not only the people, are real characters in the book, and the true underdogs. “At the racetrack, everything comes down to coercion. Many racetrack people genuinely love horses, but horses have to be trained and controlled. No horse is ever at the track without being under restraint of some kind: at the very least halter, leather straps and chains. Racehorses are bred to want to run faster than is really good for them. That’s the underlying drama of the track.”
Jaimy Gordon currently teaches at Western Michigan University and in the Prague Summer Program for Writers. She will appear at SUNY-Ulster in Stone Ridge as part of the Herbert H. & Sofia P. Reuner Library Writers’ Series on Wednesday, November 9 for a question-and-answer session at noon and a reading at 7 p.m. Both events take place in the Student Lounge of Vanderlyn Hall, and are free and open to the public.