Jan. 12 2011 12:00 AM

A National Book Award finally puts Gordon in the winner’s circle




Racing slang comes naturally after reading Jaimy Gordon’s extraordinary National Book Award-winning novel “Lord of Misrule,” about a down-on-its-luck racetrack and its denizens. When the award was announced Nov. 17 most writers referred to “Misrule” as a longshot or a dark horse that had no chance at the Winner’s Circle. But I like to call it the seedier side of Seabiscuit —with heart.

It is no coincidence that one of the first media outlets to review the book was the Daily Racing Forum and that “trackers” — slang for race track hangers-on — are snapping up the book. In an effort to make up for its initial oversight in covering “Misrule,” The New York Times has run two gushing review-profiles on the book and its author. Gordon has written three previous novels, including “Bogeywoman,” which has achieved cult status among hipsters.

What began as a short story in the 1970s turned into a gritty novel that is tough to categorize. “Misrule” has five distinct voices, captured in a Southern idiom overlaid with racetrack talk and Gordon’s own precious slang. In addition to four race horses, there are gangsters, amateur grafters, magic potions and your standard jockeys, grooms, hot-walkers and pony girls. Men and women with names like Medicine Ed, Two-Tie, Deucey and Kidstuff populate the book.

Although Gordon has been an English professor at Western Michigan University for more than 30 years, she worked at a racetrack while she was in college and clearly absorbed the culture and language like a sponge.

In a recent interview, Gordon recalled her first time at the track: “I recall the first time I was brought to the backside. I felt like a foreigner. There is a completely different idiom. It has its own money exchange and principles. It was almost eyerolling funny.”

There are not many books where you will find hagride, disputations and meshuggy all tossed around with equal weight. Every page seems to contain a voice that jumps at you. Gordon describes a jockey: “He had a deeply lined brown face, a tight taciturn upper lip and shiny pompadour on top like the painted hair on a doll.”

At first the book might be considered a difficult read — Gordon uses no quotation marks — but once the rhythm, pace and syncopation takes over, you are pulled into the book as it races to a dramatic conclusion. The book is part mystery, part love story and in part a book about people and animals reaching for that one last race.

Gordon neatly pulls together in “Lord of Misrule” characters that would be misfits anywhere else except on the track. At one point in her book, one character tells another that racetracks are crazy: “You start with that presumption.”

The protagonist, Maggie, evolved somewhat from Gordon’s own experiences on the track, even down to her part-time job as a food columnist. Early in her career Gordon rewrote food stories for a small Southern newspaper. Like Gordon did at the time, Maggie falls in love with a small-time horse trainer and grifter, who pulls her into a life in which she soars.

The novel is divided into four parts, each named after the horses that are as vividly characterized as are their two-legged overseers. The horses, like the people, are flawed creatures. Some are waiting to be led to the winner’s circle and others will just be run into the ground.

More than one writer double-checked the spelling of Gordon’s first name. It’s an unusual spelling for someone born in the1940s, but she’s not alone in her family; for example, one of her sisters, to whom the book is dedicated, is named Hilry.

Gordon credits her mother with their unusual names, jokingly recalling how many times in grade school she was included in the boys’ line. “Our mother was a bit of a renaissance woman and was good at everything,” she said.

The names were chosen to make the girls stand out, “to feel different from other people. She wanted us to feel like little prototypical artists.”

Gordon, like any great teacher, easily segues from discussion about her writing to talking about her students’ work. “They believed in me, even when my career never broke big,” she said.

She was puzzled when her career didn’t take off but candidly admits, “I’m easily distracted and procrastinate. Who else would have a completely finished novel (“Lord of Misrule”) on the shelf and do nothing with it?”

Gordon’s students have included three Michigan Notable Book Award winners. Last year, one of her former students — and good friend — Bonnie Jo Campell was a finalist for the National Book Award with her “American Salvage.”

Campbell said she took Gordon’s advanced undergraduate writing class as a lark, but has never looked back. She kept all her old papers from Gordon’s class. “I see how Jaimy cared about my writing, wanted it to be exceptional, wanted me to keep working until the works met their full potential,” Campbell said.

She added that Gordon encouraged her to create characters and situations that were bigger and richer than real life.

“She taught me to never to settle for the ordinary, but to strive to be extraordinary. A lot of what she marked on my pages had to do with word choice and using the best possible language for the situation. She taught me how important it was to find the right word for the situation, that a word whose meaning was correct could still be ‘hideous’ or ‘plodding and old.’ For example, she said that ‘ooze’ was always a two-bit word. And she was right.”

Another former student, author Liesel Litzenburger (“The Widower”), said Gordon has “been a well-kept secret for too long — I think so many of us who know her are saying that and the rest of the world is finally catching on. She’s an American original: timeless, funny, brave. When I saw Jaimy on TV accepting the award right after Patti Smith had gotten her honor for her autobiography, I was struck by how right it seemed.

“She is so much her own person and has stayed true to her own course in life. Jaimy and her work have served as inspiration for so many writers just starting out, especially and very importantly female writers. Women authors often face challenges due to the pull of family obligations and lack of time, and Jaimy was, from the very start, so unfailingly generous with her time.”

Jaimy Gordon

7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 13 Schuler Books & Music 2820 Towne Center Blvd. (517) 316-7495 www.schulerbooks.com Free