November 18, 2010
The National Book Awards are like the Oscars of literature, without the national telecast, the security guards to watch over the Harry Winston jewels or the glowing Hollywood tans (most of the nominees bear the wan, indoors-y look of the writer's life). But, like the Academy Awards, there are fancy dresses, cummerbunds and cater waiters passing around Bellinis and caviar bites — trust us, book people can party. And, much like the Oscars, the NBAs are a particular industry's biggest night, in which a career can be made (or at least pushed heartily along) with the opening of an envelope.
This year, that career belongs to Jaimy Gordon, a mid-career novelist from Baltimore living and teaching in Kalamazoo, Mich. Her fourth novel, Lord of Misrule, won the NBA for fiction on Wednesday evening, a victory that came as a surprise to many — including Gordon herself. When the announcement was read, the author's table companions shrieked at full volume, and Gordon seemed to be in shock when she finally took the stage. "I'm totally unprepared, and I’m totally surprised," she told the crowd. Later, we observed the author standing alone outside the grand façade of the Cipriani Ballroom on Wall Street in her long red gown, talking quietly into her cell phone: "I won," she said into the receiver, still seeming stunned. "I won ... the National Book Award."
Lord of Misrule, a weird, magical tale about a dusty West Virginia town and its downtrodden racetrack, follows the lives of jockeys, loan sharks, metal smiths and other outcasts over the course of a year and four horse races. The novel just arrived on shelves this month from McPherson — a small indie publisher out of Kingston, N.Y. — and while it was considered the underdog pick of the bunch, the book had already begun to gain a small momentum with critics. As Jane Smiley recently wrote in The Washington Post, "Gordon has thought so thoroughly about her characters that each voice dips into racetrack lingo in a distinctive way. It is an impressive performance."