When the five fiction nominees for the National Book Awards were announced last month, there were two small-press books on the list that virtually no one had read: Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel and Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule. A month later, I expect it's safe to say that's still the case. Unlike the Booker Prize, whose shortlist sets off a whole season of people reading and commenting on the nominees, one feels like with the NBA, despite it being the biggest US literary award that announces a shortlist beforehand (the Pulitzer quietly reveals its two runners-up at the same time as its winner), readers wait until the winner is announced before checking it out. And these two lesser-known books have their own reasons for continued relative obscurity. I Hotel, which came out in June from Coffee House Press, is a giant, encyclopedic novel, set in San Francisco's Chinatown in the revolutionary year of 1968 and told in a variety of forms--play dialogue, cartoons, academic papers, even choreography. I've poked around in it a little with curiosity, but I have to confess I haven't been able to crack it yet: it seems like a book that will take some digesting. In the Chicago Tribune, Alan Cheuse called it "the single most ambitious and experimental work of fiction I have read in a long, long time," but a "glorious failure," while in the Washington Post this week Marcela Valdes said it's "as original as it is political, as hilarious as it is heartbreaking."
Lord of Misrule has a more prosaic reason for hardly getting out of the gate yet (sorry--I'll try to make that my last horse-racing metaphor): it didn't come out until this week, from McPherson & Co. in Kingston, New York, whose publisher, Bruce McPherson, broke into publishing over 35 years ago with Gordon's debut novel, Shamp of the City-Solo. I was lucky enough to get an early copy a couple of weeks ago and dove right in, curious because of the nomination but drawn in most of all by the long epigraph, a quote from Ainslie's Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing that defines the moral calculus behind one of the oddities of horseracing, the claiming race, in which an owner, by entering a horse in a race, also offers the horse for sale at a set price whose role is to make sure horses race those of their own class: "Without claiming races there would be no racing at all. Owners would avoid the hazards of fair competition." There's so much human (and equine) drama in that definition alone that already I had the feeling I was in the hands of someone who knew the pieces of a good story when she saw it.
Gordon's story took me a little while to get settled into--she drops you right into the distinctive voices of a few of her small-time horsepeople (like I Hotel, Lord of Misrule is set in the late '60s, but at a worn down little half-mile track in West Virginia where the only sign of the politics of the times is a few offhand mentions of hippies). There are characters with Runyonesque names (Suitcase Smithers, Deucey Gifford) and the narrative bones of a caper tale, with various schemes to make a killing slipping out-of-town horses in against local low quality and a collection of longtime losers who pool their last pennies on an underdog pony.
I like a good caper, but what made me love Lord of Misrule were the characters and the music of their voices. Gordon clearly knows her way around a backwater track (or at least she fooled me), and her people are full of mingled desire and disappointment, especially the odd couple of Maggie Koderer, a young white woman drawn into the racing game against her better judgment by a weirdly confident trainer she knows better than anyone is no good, and Medicine Ed, an old black groom who thinks that all he wants is enough money to retire quietly to a trailer out beyond the back stretch. And the horses too, which are as individual--and as beaten down and semi-hopeful--as the people who build their lives around them. You get to know many horses in the story (each of the novel's four sections is named after one of them), but to me the best way to get a flavor of the book is this long section that manages, in the post parade to the small-time, almost-fixed match race that provides the story's climax, to capture a handful of four-legged lives making only these small cameos in someone else's story:
Sonia's Birthday, a tall gray six-year-old mare with rundown heels in front and a ruffle of sweat like a dingy tutu between her thighs, crunches her way along the gravel path, swinging her head from side to side and backing up as they near the paddock gate. She is not happy about this race, but her trainer needs 200 dollars. Next comes Sudanese, a neat and abstract black horse, no markings, well made, with a crop of uneven knots about his delicate joints and an air of deep self-absorption. Who recalls that six years ago Sudanese ran in the Gold Bug Futurity for $200,000, led to the sixteenth pole and held on to show? Certainly not he. Next come Wolgamot, Island Life and Hung The Moon, all mainstays of the 2000-dollar allowance field, each with his loyal following, all routers, all grizzled regulars of the ninth and tenth race, named on many an exacta ticket, each dragging his day of glory behind him, some Farmers and Merchants Cup or Pickle Packers Association Handicap or even some just-missed minor stakes. All are reasonably clean for this race, scarred and gleaming dark bays of various shades and descriptions--the commonest run of racehorse, dirt cheap, bone sore and all more beautiful than chests of viols of inlaid rosewood and pear. Hung The Moon, an amiable gelding of ten years old, stops to snatch at a dusty tuft of crabgrass along the parking lot fence. If this race is anything special he hasn't noticed.
It's hard to write fiction about sports: one of sport's beauties is that the outcome is beyond the control of a creator, the same control that a novelist can't help but possess. Gordon manages to avoid those manipulative pitfalls, in part by writing about races that everyone, like a bunch of petty little novelists, tries to fix but no one quite can. And like Malamud in The Natural, she doesn't shy away from the mythic glory, or the darkness, of the games. There's a character who becomes pretty much insane by the end of the story, and who sees the big race through a sparkly, possessed vision of God and the Devil in every number and symbol on the track. You know he's crazy, but by the end, Gordon nearly has you seeing things the same way, finding myth, misery, and magic in the humblest details of her tale.
Will we see another dark-horse, small-press victory in tomorrow's prize ceremony? All good wishes to Peter Carey, Nicole Krauss, and Lionel Shriver, but I'd love to see it. --Tom