The Writer, The Small Press, and The National Book Award

misrule

In the past couple of years, I’ve read a pair of books* dealing with, or evoking, what many people in America think of as the golden age of publishing, those years from the 1940s through the 60s, when as James Salter writes in All That Is, you might find a writer sleeping on the couch in a publisher’s office. A close relationship is implied and perhaps a long one as well, the sort writers imagine but no longer hope for if they’re being realistic. Prominent among the few remaining holdouts in this changed landscape is the longstanding bond between the writer Jaimy Gordon and her publisher, McPherson & Co.

Gordon met Bruce McPherson in a poetry seminar at Brown University. She was a student in the MFA program there, and McPherson was an undergraduate, albeit one with a good eye, as it transpired. He kept tabs on Gordon’s work, which led to an early chapbook, “The Fall of Poxdown”, from Hellcoal Press, a student-run press which McPherson served as co-editor. McPherson describes “Poxdown” as “a long poem, quite surreal, brilliant language.” Slightly later, McPherson brought out Gordon’s first novel, Shamp of the City-Solo, a book still available from McPherson & Co. This is not to suggest that there was an exclusive arrangement between Gordon and McPherson throughout the course of her career. He “served more in an advisory capacity” between Shamp and Lord of Misrule, because he “felt that other publishers would succeed better than I would” in marketing Gordon’s work. Gordon published She Drove Without Stopping with Algonquin Books, but McPherson filled the void when her agent couldn’t find a suitable publisher for the paperback edition. He’s also read manuscript versions of each new work, including Lord of Misrule.

Gordon was already well-regarded among a particular portion of the reading public, no surprise given the quality of her prose and the subtlety of her characterization. This is a writer whose point of view character in She Drove Without Stopping “heard about the shooting of Martin Luther King over an old tombstone-shaped radio that crackled like a rooftop in flames”. That is to say, a writer with command enough to render physical violence from a character’s father deliberately, without losing the surprise and danger:

And then his arm in an electrically glowing white shirt sleeve would shoot out of the dark hall, fall heavily and slap and grab and, fastening on my upper arm, throw me down the hall – which was terrifying because he seemed to be past all control of himself. And then he would depart, leaving behind that glassy silence that washes in when a person of importance suddenly acts unsound.

Yet Lord of Misrule wasn’t embraced by publishers when an early draft made the rounds. This was around 1999. About five years later, McPherson began pushing Gordon to finish the book, to make it everything her work to that point suggested the book could be. Gordon had indicated that she would return to the book at some point to address weaknesses. McPherson could see no reason to continue putting off the work. He finally convinced her to publish the book – to set a publication date – and as a means of focusing her energies, submitted the book as a National Book Award nominee. It was an unorthodox approach, but the results were remarkable, both in terms of the quality of the book Gordon produced and in the payoff to McPherson’s gambit. The book was a finalist for the award, and to the great surprise of both McPherson and Gordon (it was a 10-1 shot in a Publisher’s Weekly poll), won the award. McPherson called for a print run of 8,000 copies rather than the usual 2,000, and Gordon’s name rang out across the literary world.

And what a book it is. The language is absolutely electric. Its rhythms are as angular and unconventional as a Henry Green novel:

The frizzly hair girl wasn’t watchful like Dencey had sold her. Thus and consequently, it was easy for Medicine Ed to be watchful. He went in his tack room and put his eye up on that chink and taken a deep look at them, the funny-looking couple from Charles Town, reefer-smoking friends of Zeno, Tommy Hansel and the frizzly hair girl, and their big red horse.

Gordon herself has said that, “It took me by surprise how much I liked Lord of Misrule when I read it again, just as if somebody else had written it. I even cried twice—that was when I thought I probably had something.” She did indeed have something, a novel of uncommon power about one of our great, passé sporting traditions, horse racing. It’s a bracingly human work, one which may well define Gordon’s career as a writer. If so, she’ll no doubt tip her hat again to Bruce McPherson. His one-man enterprise, McPherson & Co., has brought out a stream of striking, often singular books, none more worthy or nearer to his heart than Lord of Misrule.

– John McIntyre

* Richard Seaver’s memoir The Tender Hour of Twilight is the other.

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