Monday, January 3, 2011

NBA Winner Jaimy Gordon Reading with Grace Paley Award Winner Christine Sneed on January 17, and All I Got was This Lousy Used Trifecta Stub.

I've only had a small window into the world of horse racing over the years. One friend of mine in high school invited me to the Belmont Stakes; another friend after college gave me a crash course in horse racing around the country, along with another sojourn to Belmont. And several years ago, I toured Churchill Downs on a trip to Louisville. And oh yes, I waited for the bus in front of several bustling OTB parlors when I lived in New York. You might have heard that they recently closed the last ones down.

I think the OTB experience in some ways was closest in feeling to my mind as I read Jaimy Gordon's new novel, Lord of Misrule, which recently was awarded the National Book Award. It's set in a small-stakes track outside of Wheeling, West Virginia. Most of the races there are claiming races, which involve putting the horse up for sale at a set price when the race is entered. It apparently levels the playing field. It's not important if, like me, you don't quite understand this.

So Gordon's story follows the inhabitants of Indian Mounds--trainers, owners, financiers, groomsfolk, jockeys, and of course horses. All small time, and mostly out for a quick buck. There's mob money, sure, and unstable folks with big tempers and guns. As the story begins, Maggie Koderer pulls into town looking for some stalls. Her boyfriend Tommy is going to race them, make a quick buck, and get out of town. Their somewhat onto the scheme at the track and make things difficult. And then Maggie gets involved in owning a horse with Deucey and Medicine Ed. And her first horse is bought away by a crooked trainer, Joe Dale Bigg (short for Biglia, it's the son that's nicknamed "Biggsy"). But Maggie is being looked out for by Two Tie, an elderly but dangerous financier because as it turns out, Maggie is his great niece. And yes, he wears two bow ties.

No, I'm not giving much away--there are more revelations to come. And tension too--it all hinges on, of course, a big race. It's not your classic rooting for the underdog story. By that climactic moment, there are several horses out there to root for, and you're not even sure if you want who you want to win, because any outcome could have disastrous reprecussions.

There are some really great characters here, and though stylized writing needs a little acclimation, it didn't take long before I was emotionally captured by the characters and worried about their plight. The author's writing has been compared to Nathaniel West and Damon Runyon. Like them, Gordon immersed me in the world of an exotic subculture, which I generally enjoy. It's like reading Scandanavian mysteries, sort of.

Want to read more? Andrew Beyer of the Washington Post was mesmerized by the novel's prose, and praised how she perfectly captured the idiom of the racetrack. And Jane Smiley, who picked the genesis story of the novel for Best American Short Stories 1995 called the book "beautifully written" and praised its "narrative panache", though she did have quibbles. Kirkus loved "the exceptional writing" and "idiosyncratic characters" And here's the profile from The New York Times that gave us a sales pop--it's quite a backstory.

I was originally in contact about this event when Jaimy Gordon was nominated for the National Book Award. She was working with an independent publicist with whom I've crossed paths over the years. Never did I think that we'd be hosting an event for the NBA winner. This is such an honor, but I'll let you in on a secret--after the win, my first thought was, "Well, there goes my event." In fact, it's still happening. Much thanks to Bruce McPherson at McPherson and Company, Mary Bisbee-Beek, and of course, the author.

But this is actually a double header. Also reading will be Chritine Sneed, the winner of the Grace Paley Award for Short Fiction for her recent collection, Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry. Jonathan Messinger praised the stories' slow-motion tension in Time Out Chicago. And if you wind up playing around on Sneed's site, you'll see that she is fond of Tom Swifties!

Both authors are appearing at Boswell on Monday, January 17th, at 7 pm.

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