“Lord of Misrule”
By Jaimy Gordon
McPherson & Company. ($25.00, 294 pp.)
By Paul Harding
Bellevue Literary Press ($14.95, 191 pp.)
Writers…can’t do with ’em and can’t do without ’em. Somebody has to put the stories together in ways that entertain and enlighten us. Some writers just sit down at their keyboards and start typing. Some scribble old-school style with paper and pencil. Some cut and paste from journals and aborted novels. Some are old folks. Some are just kids. Some go to school to learn the trade. Some go to school to teach the trade. Some blog, apparently contented, but secretly longing to see their work in a “real” book – selected, packaged, and promoted by a “real” publisher. Some want to make the New York Times bestseller list. Some dream of a Nobel, or Pulitzer, or National Book Award. Some just want to make a living writing. All the good ones can’t help themselves from writing.
The book and writing business is in major upheaval and 2010 will go down as a pivotal year. It was the year the that digital reading devices and eBooks became legit – led first by Amazon’s Kindle but soon followed by the Nook, the iPad, the Sony reader, and who knows what Google will create. Last year, those newspapers that survived threw out free-standing book review sections and their reviewers like bad pennies. The second largest bookstore chain, Borders, continued its dance on the precipice of bankruptcy. The year’s bestselling books were led by the odd author trio of George W. Bush, Mark Twain, and Keith Richards closely followed by two entitled “Shit My Dad Says” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” Go figure.
2010 was also the year our two major literary prizes went to two obscure writers published by obscure presses. In late May the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction was awarded to Paul Harding for his first novel “Tinkers,” published by the Bellevue Literary Press. In November the National Book Award for fiction went to Jaimy Gordon for her novel “The Lord of Misrule,” published by McPherson & Company.
First Printing of 3500
Harding, age 42, was previously best known for playing drums with the band “Cold Water Flats,” which he formed with friends as he plodded along through his six years at the University of Massachusetts. When the band broke up, he took a writing class with novelist Marilynne Robinson at Skidmore. She helped him get into the more famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop where he worked at his short novel, sending it off to serial rejection from the big New York publishers.
With a jacket blurb from Robinson, however, five year old Bellevue finally bought the novel for a $1000 advance and printed 3500 paperbacks. As a division of the New York University School of Medicine, Bellevue is more known for books like “Pale Faces: The Masks of Anemia” than for fiction with the broken narrative and interior monologues of Harding’s story of a dying itinerant clock repairman wandering the roads of Maine. Having read “Tinkers” after seeing several good reviews and finding it rather boring, I was as surprised as anyone when it won the Pulitzer. Bellevue was especially surprised and forced to stretch its resources to provide sufficient subsequent printings to satisfy the market’s pumped up demand.
Lightning Strikes Twice
In November of 2010, lightening again struck the writing and book world when the prestigious National Book Award for fiction was presented to Jaimy Gordon for “Lord of Misrule,” her fourth novel following several other books of poetry and translation written during her almost thirty years as a teacher of writing at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Like several of her books, it was published by the small, one man (Bruce McPherson) press McPherson & Company in Kingston, NY – just up the Hudson from Poughkeepsie. Like Bellevue, McPherson was unprepared and underfinanced to print sufficient copies fast enough to meet demand. Gordon, age 66, with her now well-known springy, frizzy hair, was also unprepared, and she left the winner’s podium at the award ceremony after only a very brief word of thanks.
I finally got around to reading “Lord of Misrule” after the holidays, and, unlike “Tinkers,” it is very much deserving of its recognition. Gordon’s life is nothing if not a writing school life. She got an Antioch undergraduate degree in the subject, went on to get her Masters and PhD in it from Brown, and has been teaching writing ever since. It is hard to know what to expect from a writer so immersed in academia, but I certainly never expected to find the tactile and argot-laced world of horse racing at a small town West Virginia “claiming” track. She was apparently strongly touched by her brief experience as a “hot-walker” at Charles Town Race Track in the 60’s.
“Lord of Misrule” is a novel of characters…some human, some equine…and a plot centered on the races described in each of its four sections; but while there is some plot tension anticipating the winners, the characters are the heart of the book.
The central protagonist Maggie is a “frizzly hair” college girl who has left her job writing a cooking column to run off with her handsome, horse-obsessed boyfriend Tommy. She keeps their trailer house for him, tends to his horses, and gives herself to his every intoxicating touch. He treats her as poorly as he thinks of her: “She was a slut, and not only that, she was a Mediterranean slob. She picked at scabs, she picked her nose, it was nothing to find one of her bloody tampons forgotten, stuck fast in a pool of browning gore to the side of the bathtub. Small as she was, she loved to eat and could put it away like a peasant.”
Nonetheless, they had something once, and Gordon can write an unforgettable picture: “That first summer they knew each other, when he came home in the afternoon from the track and she from the paper, they were in bed in five minutes, with all of it: newsprint and horse manure, saddle leather, ink and hashish, past performance chart and food pages, sweet feed and recipes for blancmange and corn soufflé. The sheets literally reeked of all that. The sweat-damp canyons of the featherbed were gritty with their mixture. In some way their immiscible lives fused.”
Maggie soon gets caught up in their surroundings at the seedy Indian Mound Downs track where the broke down allowance horses go to run, “la crème de la crud…the commonest run of racehorse, dirt cheap, bone sore.” She meets the old, limping black groom Medicine Ed, a gypsy trainer Deucey, the farrier Kidstuff, sleazy owners like Joe Dale Bigg and his idiot son Biggy, and a bi-sexual jockey Alice who is “the living expert on them pokeweed and poison ivy racecourses…On them tight turns she is slick as gut. She has win some races on horses that shouldn’t be walking, never mind running.”
These racetrack rats teach her about caring for horses, medicating them, claiming them for cheap, and betting the field. Maggie finds the horses and the track more attractive than Tommy who wins a few races and loses his head going off to woo rich owners in Louisville and New York. She winds up owning a horse together with Medicine Ed and Deucey, and the novel makes its way to the climactic race where her horse is pitted against the former Ak-bar-ben claims champion Lord of Misrule. He has fallen on bad times but hasn’t lost his spunk: “a small, black, slinky horse…with a certain junkyard style…the knacker from Nebraska, the Devil himself.” All the lore of the track that Gordon so carefully explores as the book progresses culminates in the final race, and like many horse races, the unexpected happens.
Gordon is clearly more than a writing-school writer. The closest reference to writing or writers in “Lord of Misrule” is Maggie’s newspaper cooking column…which she abandons at the start for the world of horses, where Medicine Ed teaches her “how to rub down the horse’s leg and put on the cottons and bandage, smooth and not too tight, without poking it through with the pin and putting a hole in the animal. Then she thought she knew something.”
Jaimy Gordon knows something, something that the big players in the book world missed – she knows how to write. She creates unique characters and can make a horse just as interesting as its trainer. She puts a reader’s nose smack in the middle of a stall full of straw and horse piss. She captures the practical fear of man about to be killed because “nobody likes the idea of turning up dead in a garbage bag in a culvert, scaring some poor Cub Scout out of his wits with your empty eye holes and eaten-up head, it ain’t dignified.”
Gordon writes us into another world and we are fortunate that she won the National Book Award. That, after all, is what writing schools, publishers, reviewers, booksellers…and award committees are for: they find that special voice, whether in Kalamazoo or a defunct rock band, and get the writing out there for all of us to enjoy. Her award alone makes 2010 a special year despite the chaos in the book market.