Race slang rolls of the tongue after reading Jaimy Gordonâ€™s extraordinary National Book Award winning novel â€œThe Lord of Misruleâ€ about a down on its luck race track and the denizens that inhabit it. When the National Book Award was announced November 17 most writers referred to the book as a longshot or a darkhorse, having no chance at the winnerâ€™s circle,Â 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 â€œtrackers,â€ slang for race track hangers on, are snapping up the book. In an effort to make up for totally ignoring the book, the New York Times ran two gushing review-profiles on the book and on Gordon, who had written three previous novels, one of which was beatified with cult status among hipsters.
What began as a short story in the 1970s turned into a gritty novel that is tough to categorize. It has five distinct voices captured in a Southern idiom overlaid with racetrack slang and Gordonâ€™s own precious slang. In addition to the four race horses that are used as dividers for the book, 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 people the book.
Gordon who has been a writing and English professor at Western Michigan University for more than 30 years worked at a racetrack while she was in college clearly absorbing the culture and language like a sponge.
In a recent interview, Gordon was reminded of her first time at the track.
â€œI 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 eye-rolling funny.â€
She said our daily language has become saturated with racehorse slang. She throws out just one, â€œOff to the races.â€
Gordon like any great teacher easily diverts discussion about her writing to that of her studentsâ€™ work.
â€œThey believed in me even when my career never broke big.â€
She said her career puzzled her when it didnâ€™t take off, but candidly admits â€œIâ€™m easily distracted and procrastinate.
Who else would have a completely finished novel (â€œLord of Misruleâ€) on the shelf and do nothing with it?â€
Gordonâ€™s students have included three Michigan Notable Book Award winners and last year one of her former students and good friend Bonnie Jo Campbell was nearly in the â€œwinnerâ€™s circleâ€ as a finalist for the National Book Award with â€œAmerican Salvageâ€.
Campbell said she took Gordonâ€™s advanced undergraduate writing class as a lark, but has never looked back. Campbell who at the time was a math major kept all her old papers and said, â€œI see how Jaimy cared about my writing, wanted it to be exceptional, wanted me to keep working until the works met their full potential.â€
Â She said Gordon encouraged her to create characters and situations that were bigger and richer than real life.
â€œShe taught me 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.â€
More than one writer double checked the spelling of Gordonâ€™s first name, an unusual spelling for someone born in the 1940s, but sheâ€™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 boysâ€™ line.
â€œOur mother was a bit of a renaissance woman and was good at everything.â€
Gordon said the names were chosen to make the girls stand out- â€œTo feel different from other people.â€
â€œShe wanted us to feel like little prototypical artists.â€
Gordon neatly pulls together in â€œLord of Misruleâ€ characters who would be misfits anywhere else except on the track where they are the norm. She has the grafters, the gamblers, small time hoods and horse people all involved in making a killing.
At one point in her book a character tells another that racetracks are crazy-â€œYou start with that presumption.â€
Gordonâ€™s use of the language draws parallels with Faulkner, Flannery Oâ€™Conner or T.C. Boyle, but Gordon is no slackard, herself.
There are not many books where you will find hagride, disputations and meshuggy all tossed around with equal weight.
She describes a jockey: â€œHe had a deeply lined brown face, a tight taciturn upper lip and shiny pompadour on top like the painted hair on a doll.â€
This is not an isolated instance, it is routine with Gordon and every page seems to contain a voice that jumps at you.
At first the book might be considered a difficult read â€“the author uses no quotation marks for example, but once the rhythm, pace and syncopation of Gordonâ€™s takes over you are pulled into the book as it races to a dramatic conclusion. The book is part mystery, part love story and part about down-on-their-luck people and animals who are reaching for that one last race. Â
From the very beginning you have the feeling everything is not going to be ok-it comes with the dirt, the smell and even the odors that are part and parcel of racing.
The protagonist, Maggie, is somewhat evolved from Gordonâ€™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 where she soars.
Itâ€™s clear Gordon has a place in her heart for those who find themselves down on their luck, and she also has a place for horses who are in the same place in life. The novel is divided into four distinct parts all named after horses who are as much characters as are their two-legged overseers, a tip she picked up from a writing mentor early in her career. The horses like the people in her books are flawed creatures. Some waiting to be led to the winnerâ€™s circle and others just run into the ground.
Another of her students, author Liesel Litzenburger (â€œThe Widowerâ€), said â€œSheâ€™s been a well-kept secret for too longâ€”I think so many of us who know her are saying that and the rest of the world is finally catching on. Sheâ€™s an American originalâ€”timeless, funny, brave.Â When I saw Jaimy on TV accepting the award right after Patti Smith had gotten her honor for her autobiographyâ€” was struck by how right it seemed.â€Â
She is so much her own person and has stayed true to her own course in life.Â Jaimy and her work have served as inspiration for so many writers just starting outâ€”especially and very importantly, female writers.Â 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.â€
I told her this was like a movie endingâ€”the underdog, fairly unknown but very talented writer winning this huge award and the world coming to her door.â€