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Jaimy Gordon: a literary winner from the outside track

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."

Gordon went on sabbatical in 1997 and returned to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass. There she ran into the postmodern novelist John Hawkes, a friend and teacher, who "had a thing about horse racing." Gordon told him, "I'm going to start that racetrack novel I've been promising you all these years." Hawkes told her, "Just make sure you make the horses into real characters."

She took that advice to heart. "I suppose I would have done that anyway, because so much of the experience of working on the track was about the horses for me." A lot of the book came out of the life she shed. (It's even set in the 1970s.) But a seasoned black groom, Medicine Ed, turned out to be central to the narrative. Through her lawyer-father's connections to Robert Meyerhoff, who "had a string of very good horses at Pimlico," Gordon got on the track and met Richard Small, "a terrific trainer." She asked him to introduce her to "any old-timey black grooms who were like the main people working on the racetrack in my day." One of them, "Bubbles" Riley, became her good friend. She dedicates the book partly to him, with the evocative inscription, "Still beating that devil."

She hoped her novel would share "the same ethos" as Leonard Gardner's classic small-time boxing book, "Fat City": "This fascination with people in low-end sports who are sincere romantics but, at the same time, are desperate in one way or another." She worked steadily on a draft and finished it in about three years — for Gordon, a literary sprint.

That's where her old friend Bruce McPherson came in.

McPherson had met Gordon at a poetry class in Brown when he was an undergraduate and she was a graduate student. "Nobody stood out like Jaimy," he declared last week, from his home in Kingston, N.Y.

"She was just a scintillating intellect." He insulted her in class, knowing she'd call him on it afterward — and the conversation they started has continued for 40 years. In 1974 he set himself up as a publisher when she couldn't get her first novel, "Shamp of the City-Solo," into print. Though McPherson was born in Atlanta, his mother came from Baltimore and her family had founded the beloved Rice Bakery.

"Our families were from two different Baltimores: my grandparents were WASPY society Baltimore and Jaimy's parents were from the Baltimore of Jewish professionals."

They bonded over literature — especially, her literature. "My feeling all along was that at some point, she was going to have to be published by a far more capable publisher." He strove to keep her momentum going. After Alqonquin published her second novel, "She Drove Without Stopping" (1990), she won an American Academy and Institute of Arts & Letters award for fiction — but McPherson was the one who reissued it in paperback.

Then, in 2000, he got a draft of "Lord of Misrule": "I printed it out, read it, and told her it was absolutely great." Gordon says, "I was really confident that it had commercial properties nothing else of mine have ever had."

Her then-agent didn't agree. "She showed it to five or six places," Gordon says, "Then she came back to me and said, 'I think you have to face it, that you're just a small-press author.'"

Gordon was depressed, angry and confused. She was certain that she had reached the balance of lyricism and thrust that she had so admired in Updike. Her books, though spaced apart, had been attracting attention. Her third novel, "Bogeywoman" (1999), about a rebellious lesbian teenager in a Baltimore psychiatric clinic, was named a Los Angeles Times Notable Book of the Year.

McPherson offered to publish "Lord of Misrule." Gordon said "maybe." Shaken by rejection, she did something she told her writing students never to do — make a massive change when she didn't have the time to see it through. She excised the Medicine Ed material ("I always thought that stuff was a gem") and worked it into a separate story. "It's basically the beginning of the novel as it is now. But I had to bring the rest of the novel into congruence with it. I left myself a chopped-up manuscript, and the decade between 2001-2011 was very tough for me. Both my parents died during that period, and one other family member. For four or five years in there, I was not able to think very clearly about my work."

But McPherson never let up. Gordon promised him the manuscript "if I was really unable to sell it by 2010. It was like something in a fairy tale, where you forget that you made a bargain and suddenly the devil comes to collect." McPherson thinks it happened slightly differently. He pressed her hard for the book from 2005 on. In the fall of 2009 he said, "Let's go ahead and plan to do it."

McPherson knew his friend had an aversion to rereading this novel. Referring to the novel's heroine, Maggie, Gordon explains, "I could not bring myself to look at another Jaimy Gordon reckless young woman. I think I had just gone sour on her — because, in all candor, she hadn't paid off for me."

The publisher overcame her hesitancy. He predicted that "Lord of Misrule" would be a contender for the National Book Award — and after she stopped "laughing hysterically," Gordon says, "I actually began to consider doing what he was asking of me, because he was so much more vehement than he had ever been before." McPherson enlisted her husband, Peter Blickle, to keep her focused. And then, McPherson says, he set the manuscript "in book pages. My thought was that you can see a piece of writing as a book more easily when it's typeset. She read it and thought it wasn't bad." (Or even better than "not bad"; last week she admitted that it "moved" her.)

Gordon kept making changes. Once it became a National Book Award nominee, McPherson sent a special set of revised galleys to the judges. The novel's passion and virtuosity, and its engulfing view of a little-known world, bowled over reviewers — and the judges. Vintage did the paperback. Pantheon will put out her next novel.

In retrospect, she thinks she wrote a book "that would have appealed to a different kind of editor than the kind that my then-agent used to work with. It's not about women who are deeply loyal to their relationships; it's not about women who are carefully analytical about every aspect about what they owe to those they love. It's a much wilder, more jagged kind of book."

Even the wilder parts of Baltimore seeped into the action. She recently wrote, "My mother was raised by her grandparents on Patterson Park Avenue in East Baltimore, among seven aunts and uncles, none of whom, as far as I know, ever read a book, in a horseplaying household where Shabbos ended in a poker game. … Two uncles went to jail and one was eventually murdered." That's who the characters in "Lord of Misrule" talk like — except for Medicine Ed. He speaks in the transplanted-Carolina tones of her great-grandparents' black neighbors — and those old-timey track hands.

Gordon said last week, "I've always been proud to be from Baltimore, even before 'The Wire.' And I'm a great John Waters fan. His Baltimore is more like the Baltimore I was raised in. I see lots of things I recognize in Waters, and I feel a certain kinship to him, in the way he looks at characters, especially when I'm trying to be funny.

"I always wanted to have some sort of reputation in Baltimore. I wanted the library to notice, hey, most of my books are set in Baltimore, and it's not the same Baltimore that Anne Tyler writes about — it's a lot more raffish, to put it mildly. Also, though I guess Laura Lippman could be looked on as a Baltimore writer from the Jewish community, it's funny that there really hasn't been one until now — it's such an important part of the ethnic mix in Baltimore."

So how does this outlaw feel to be a headliner at CityLit?

"Thank God — I finally made good!"

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

If you go

WYPR's Tom Hall will interview Jaimy Gordon at the CityLit Festival at 1:45 p.m. on Saturday, April 16 at the Enoch Pratt Central Library's Wheeler Auditorium, 400 Cathedral St. Free. Call 410-396-5430 or go to citylitproject.org.

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