Jaimy Gordon: a literary winner from the outside track

The Baltimore-bred winner of the 2010 National Book Award will read from 'Lord of Misrule' at CityLit

  • Picture of Jaimy Gordon, author of Lord of Misrule.
Picture of Jaimy Gordon, author of Lord of Misrule. (Brian Widdis )
April 08, 2011|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

Jaimy Gordon says she was a student at Antioch College when John Updike's "The Centaur" taught her that a writer could use "outsized metaphors" and still wield "the power to keep people interested because they need to know what happens in a book. It's the most powerful tool for any writer of narrative fiction. Who in his or her right mind would relinquish it?"

In 1964, Updike won the National Book Award for "The Centaur," his third novel. In 2010, Gordon won the National Book Award for her fourth novel, "Lord of Misrule." Updike was a 32-year-old Golden Boy of American literature. Gordon was a 66-year-old literary "outlaw" whose stories, poems and novels — often based on a figure she dubbed "the adventuress" — won prizes, acclaim and a minuscule readership.

Gordon's win blindsided critics. They scrambled to find new ways of proclaiming her the ultimate "dark horse" — especially because "Lord of Misrule" is a racetrack novel, perhaps the best ever written.

With mischievous understatement, Gordon says that the victory has put her in "a very good mood." She should be in high spirits when she returns this week to her native Baltimore for the Pratt Library's CityLit celebration.

This author, like Updike, is a poet as well as a novelist. She writes poetic fiction with an immediate sensuous charge that brings the action alive, whether through lived-in detail or spot-on allusion. In "Lord of Misrule," the title horse rides into the low-down West Virginia track, Indian Mound Downs, in a van that's "one of those big box trailers with rusty quilting like an old mattress pad you've given to the dog."

Her descriptions emerge like unforced arias from the voices of the major characters. They pull you into a story of conflicting personal and professional ties at an end-of-the-line track where has-been or never-were steeds compete in "claiming races."

It's an ideal setting for a tale of shifting allegiances and volatile bonds among trainers, grooms and jockeys, touts and "financiers." If you believe, as Wordsworth did, that "poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" — and that it originates "from emotion recollected in tranquility" — you can understand why Gordon's gritty-lyrical book is a gnarly little masterpiece that took a dozen years to come to light.

The emotion was always there. The tranquility was harder to come by. Few authors had such juicy material to draw on. Gordon grew up in Baltimore in an upper-middle-class Jewish section of "suburban Upper Park Heights." After graduating from Antioch in 1965, she moved to California ("a boyfriend was involved"), then headed back east and settled in West Virginia two years later.

Between college and graduate school, she worked as a food columnist for the Frederick News-Post — and fell in with a "handsome, charismatic" horse trainer. She became a groom and hot-walker at the Charles Town Races and the Green Mountain Park in Pownal, Vt. When she enrolled in a graduate writing program at Brown University, she also taught at the Rhode Island state prison. She found herself drawn to the riskier side of Providence, that part-Ivy League, part Mobbed-up town. One rejected ex-con suitor set her apartment on fire.

Last week, while promoting the paperback edition of "Lord of Misrule," Gordon recalled, "At the age of 35, when I was a fellow at the Fine Arts Center in Provincetown, I began thinking about the kind of young woman I had been in my 20s." She viewed the way she was back then "as a kind of type: daring, physically pretty adventurous, always feeling myself to be robust rather than delicate — hungry for adventure in almost a scary way."

Gordon's heroines share that thirst, she says, with "Robert Stone's educated drifters, who put themselves in trouble almost to remind themselves that they're alive. Their spirituality is all screwed up until they're scared, and then they have some instinct to fight for themselves and value life and God and everything else again."

Gordon carved out a life for herself teaching graduate courses in creative writing at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich. She's been there for three decades. Midway through her tenure she began thinking about ways to mine fictional art from the three years she had spent working at racetracks.

First, in 1995, she completed a short story called "A Night's Work."

"I wanted to see if I could get that atmosphere back — get the sound of the voices of the people I knew on the racetrack." It included two characters who pop up in "Lord of Misrule" — Kidstuff, a blacksmith who is catnip to the ladies, and a civilized loan shark called Two-Tie "because he had the sartorial peculiarity of wearing two bow ties at once, one black, one striped, every day of his life."

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