Jaimy Gordon impels us to find the other great small-press writers we’ve never heard of. She is this winter’s longshot winner of the National Book Award, for her gorgeous racetrack novel Lord of Misrule. The 40-to-1 payoff is for readers who, but for the big prize, might never hear of non-commercial fiction or savor it’s very distinctive pleasures.
Lord of Misrule was reviewed in the Daily Racing Form before it was noticed by the New York Times. It may never get noted in the Times Sunday Book Review. But anyone who opens it will recognize instantly the real old American thing: horses, jockeys, trainers and touts with Damon Runyon names like Medicine Ed and Suitcase and Two-Tie, loners and outcasts on their own crummy racetrackers’ planet in far West Virginia. Just as quickly we meet characters, both equine and human, whose lives, language and trials feel entirely new.
I wanted to write a social novel of a kind, I wanted to represent, in one way or another, all the orders of humanity of this world. I think my previous books were usually dominated by one reckless human being, usually a young woman, whose fortunes would horrify and interest the reader.
In the case of Lord of Misrule, I think I was getting to be of an age where I could identify as much with the family-less loan shark, Two-Tie, and Medicine Ed, who’s looking for a home at the age of 72, not sure that he’s made the right career choice in being a groom for 60-some years … I think that since, as a writer, I felt that my career had never broken big and I was getting into my sixties myself, [I wondered] had I made the right career choice here? I think that, like Medicine Ed, I didn’t feel competent to do anything else and I couldn’t have pictured myself anywhere else than on my racetrack, which is the world of American fiction, but I couldn’t see exactly where I was heading.
I think that the charm of the book, if it has any, is that the writer is fully as much inhabiting Medicine Ed and Two-Tie as the young woman. I used to be the young woman in my books, but now I am just as much the old guys, looking into a kind of bitter and insecure unknown.
Jaimy Gordon with Chris Lydon at the Boston Athanaeum, 2. 11. 2011.
One of the great epiphanies of her life, Jaimy Gordon remarks, came at 17, working illegally in a bar on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It was the first time she was surrounded by people who “didn’t speak proper English,” and she was amazed at the poetry in their conversation.
I venture that Jaimy Gordon’s work is marked by a kind of comic maximalism in the manner of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, every type of literary effect exploding on every page. Indeed, she’s telling me, she claimed maximalism as her métier when she studied writing at Brown — with John Hawkes and Keith Waldrop, among others — and minimalism was all the literary rage. She points to John Updike’s novel The Centaur, which also won a National Book Award, as her inspiration for transferring the kind of far-fetched, daring metaphors common in poetry into plot-driven prose.
Jaimy Gordon assures us that despite the echoing laments for the death of literature, we are in a sort of “Golden Age of American letters,” fueled by more than 350 college-level creating writing programs. In this conversation she gives us some of her favorite practitioners, well-known and unsung: Katherine Davis for Hell, Labrador, The Girl who Trod on a Loaf; Kellie Wells for Skin, Compression Scars; Joanna Scott, Russell Banks, Peter Carey and Paul Harding for his out-of-nowhere small-press Pulitzer Prize Tinkers. We are blessed.