National Book Award Winner Set Near Wheeling Mentions

A new novel – set at an imaginary horse racing track south of Wheeling – has captured the prestigious National Book Award.

At a ceremony in New York City Wednesday, Nov. 17, it was announced that author Jaimy Gordon won the prize in the fiction category for “Lord of Misrule,” published by McPherson & Company, a small literary firm in Kingston, N.Y. The New York Times described the book as “a surprise pick” for the award.

The New York Times article stated, “The novel, about the ruthless world of horse racing in West Virginia, was praised by the judges as a ‘vivid, memorable and linguistically rich novel.'”

According to the Times, a “stunned-looking” Gordon said in a brief speech, “I’m totally unprepared, and I’m totally surprised.”

The newspaper account’s mention of horse racing and West Virginia piqued my curiosity, and I decided to do some research.

From the National Book Foundation’s website, I found this description of the novel: “At the rock-bottom end of the sport of kings sits the ruthless and often violent world of cheap horse racing, where trainers and jockeys, grooms and hotwalkers, loan sharks and touts all struggle to take an edge, or prove their luck, or just survive. ‘Lord of Misrule’ follows five characters – scarred and lonely dreamers in the American grain -through a year and four races at Indian Mound Downs, downriver from Wheeling, West Virginia.”

With my curiosity definitely heightened at this point, I began digging deeper. Wondering what possible connection the author might have to the Wheeling area, I discovered that Gordon has a sister who resides in New Martinsville.

Biographical sketches of Gordon on the National Book Foundation’s website and on a webpage of Western Michigan University, where she teaches, didn’t provide any hints of an Ohio Valley connection. However, upon further investigation, I came upon an interview that Bret Anthony Johnston had conducted with Gordon after “Lord of Misrule” was named a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction.

In a transcript of that interview, posted on the National Book Foundation’s website, Johnston said to the author, “The novel is set in West Virginia. What role does setting play in your writing?”

Gordon replied, “Although ‘Lord of Misrule’ certainly makes use of what I know about the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia along the Ohio River between Wheeling and New Martinsville, where one of my sisters still lives and I have a kind of second home – the rags of fog from the river, the fragile, chocolatey earth and red dust and the close-packed hills – the real setting of ‘Lord of Misrule’ is the seedy half-mile racetrack itself, Indian Mound Downs. That little track never existed, but its backside probably has more in common with that of the long defunct Green Mountain Park Racetrack in Pownal, Vermont, than any West Virginia track.”

When Johnston asked what role research plays in her writing process, Gordon explained, “As for horse racing, I had worked as a groom at half-mile racetracks from 1967 until 1970, but I did do some field research for ‘Lord of Misrule’ at Pimlico.’

The author continued, “Robert Meyerhoff, owner of Broad Brush among other fine horses, arranged for me to talk to his trainer, Richard Small. I told Dick Small that I would like to talk to elderly black grooms who had been on the racetrack forever, and he sent me to Bubbles Riley, born in 1914, now age 96, one of the people to whom ‘Lord of Misrule’ is dedicated. Bubbles had done much more than rub horses in his day, at West Virginia tracks as well as Pimlico, and he is far too foxy, worldly, gregarious, savvy in business, and downright postmodern to have been the model for (veteran groom) Medicine Ed, but he told me hundreds of things I needed to know in the course of writing ‘Lord of Misrule,’ and he still does.”

Gordon said she began the novel in the late 1990s at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass., where she was a fellow. She also was a fellow of the Bunting (now Radcliffe) Institute at Harvard.

A native of Baltimore, Gordon now lives in Kalamazoo, Mich. Her three previous novels are “Shamp of the City-Solo,” “She Drove Without Stopping,” which was selected as an American Library Association Notable Book for 1990, and “Bogeywoman,” which was on the Los Angeles Times’ list of best fiction of 2000.

The Associated Press reported that Gordon’s novel has been picked up by a major publishing house. The paperback edition of “Lord of Misrule” has been acquired by Vintage Books, an imprint of Random House.

Linda Comins can be reached via e-mail at: