Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Dark Horse Wins

No one saw it coming.  Least of all author Jaimy Gordon and her publisher McPherson & Company.

When the winner of the National Book Award for fiction was announced, Ms. Gordon allegedly screamed.  Mr. McPherson immediately started calculating a larger print run, upping the ante from 8,000 copies of Gordon's novel Lord of Misrule to 25,000 copies.  None of them could quite trust the Cinderella story they were suddenly living.

But yet there was Gordon, minutes later, standing at the podium and stammering out an acceptance speech she hadn't even prepared.  It was a moment that sent fresh blood coursing through the veins of under-read and overlooked authors around the world.  We're not talking authors you find on the remainder tables or bargain books sections of major bookstores, either--these are the writers devoted to their craft who toil for years without recognition, publishing their work in small presses which, though most treat their books and authors with loving affection, can't afford large print runs and can't cough up the clams for author book tours.  If these under-appreciated writers get any recognition at all, it's often like the sound a pebble makes when it's dropped into an ocean.

That's why Lord of Misrule taking the big-enchilada prize is such a huge deal.

Now, to be fair, I haven't had a chance to read Gordon's novel.  It's received mixed reviews, but I have high expectations for it.  High enough hopes that I gave myself an early Christmas present and ordered it from Amazon this morning.  The novel centers around the seamier side of horse racing--not necessarily something I'd gravitate toward, but from what I've heard it's the writing style more than the plot which makes the book work so well.

In her mostly-warm review of the novel for Washington Post, Jane Smiley writes:
There are racetracks and there are racetracks, and in all eras, they are worlds apart from the world most of us live in.  The racetrack in Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule is a half-mile oval only tangentially in the same game as Churchill Downs or Santa Anita, but even though Bing Crosby or Penny Chenery may have never been to a place like Gordon's fictional Indian Mound Downs, chances are some horses they knew would recognize it.  Indian Mound Downs is the last stop and the lowliest venue; the horses who run there are expected to be drugged and lame, while their trainers are expected to be crooked.  All forms of cheating and violence against people and animals are so routine that anything unusual, like a horse with talent, sparks fear.
Smiley goes on to say that the National Book Award winner is "an impressive performance."

The publisher's website encapsulates the novel thusly: "Equal parts Nathanael West, Damon Runyon and Eudora Welty, Lord of Misrule follows five characters -- scarred and lonely dreamers in the American grain -- through a year and four races at Indian Mound Downs, downriver from Wheeling, West Virginia."

Frankly, they had me at "Nathanael" (I am a devout disciple of Mr. West's dark, scathing satire).

The New York Times has a good profile of Gordon and her writing in today's edition.  Charles McGrath writes:
       Ms. Gordon, who has a graduate degree in writing from Brown but also spent time working at a racetrack and briefly lived with an ex-convict who set fire to their apartment, has never been very conventional.  She has a huge corona of springy, tightly curled hair that suggests prolonged exposure to a light socket, and a personality to match: forthright, disarming, uncensored.  She is a wiser, chastened version of the reckless young female character who turns up in many of her books and never misses a chance to endanger herself.
       “I’ve spent my whole professional life swirling the eddies of the margins,” Ms. Gordon said over dinner last week, and added, “I had opportunities, and I blew them.”
Well, her time has come to leave the margins.  As it has for her publisher.  A local paper has a detailed story about McPherson & Company.  (The story is a bit goopy with the enthusiasm, but then you can hardly blame Mr. McPherson.)

You can get bucketsful of information about the book (including an excerpt) at McPherson & Company's website.  That Chapter One excerpt is particularly interesting.  It jumps right into the action at the track, crowds the pages with details about leading horses around a "hot-walking machine," and is saturated with slang.  The dialogue, a la Cormac McCarthy, comes without quotation marks, lending the entire passage a stark atmosphere.
There'd been no rain all August and by now the fresh worked horses were half lost in the pink cloud of their own shuffling.  Red dust from those West Virginia hills rode in their wide open nostrils and stuck to their squeezebox lungs.
A few pages later, a speeding car drives through a mud puddle: "Red clay-water squirted on all sides like cream of tomato soup."  Nice.

For those with the burning questions "Who is this Jaimy Gordon?" and "Where did she come from?", I refer you to Keith Waldrop's short analysis of his former student's work, pre-Lord.  Here, Waldrop discusses She Drove Without Stopping (1990), Circumspections from an Equestrian Statue (1979) and The Bend, the Lip, the Kid (1978), among other works.  He writes:
Jaimy Gordon’s language is never the same; she has a different prose for each of her books, from one fiction to the next.  Always playful, it is not Joycean....Its literary influences are extremely broad, medieval to baroque to current and including much folk material.
At The Los Angeles Times, Susan Salter Reynolds is even more direct:
In her novels, stories and poetry (especially her 1978 book-length story in free verse, The Bend, the Lip, the Kid), Gordon has pushed the limits of style — explored the empty places in her articulate characters and works — so that language drags meaning behind it like a fur coat trailing blood.  Her language is so textured that her pages seem three-dimensional.
So, there you have it.  A dark horse wins the publishing race this year.*  It's a heartening way to end 2010.  My jury is still out on the book, but I'll try to report back here once I've read Lord of Misrule.

One more thing:  I really like that cover which symbolizes Gordon and McPherson's own come-from-behind story.  A foggy racetrack, a lone horse, a determined rider.  This could illustrate all the years which came before when the author and the small press were struggling to catch up (but glorying in the feel of the mane snapping in the wind nonetheless), or it could indicate the post-awards happiness when they're so far out in front of everyone else it's like they're the only ones out there.

*If, that is, you want to break publishing down into a competition.


  1. That story is an inspiration to us all! I'm gonna have to read Lord Of Misrule just out of solidarity.

  2. Thanks for this review. I'll definitely have to check it out. I love underdogs.