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McPherson didn't give up. "Six or seven years ago," he offered to publish the book if Gordon hadn't sold it by 2010. When the date came, he mailed unbound galleys of the unrevised draft to her.
"After I recovered from my shock, I read the thing," Gordon reports in a interview on the National Book Awards website. "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 started rewriting in earnest. In July, McPherson submitted her revised first draft for the National Book Award. In order to meet eligibility guidelines, the book had to be in print by November. "This made for a very tight schedule—we were still in the editorial process in August and September," says McPherson, who'd submitted another author's book a few years ago, "with no success, which is normal." But he had a bettor's hunch about Lord of Misrule.
"I just thought this was such an American book, and a book for this time. We may not be calling it a depression, but we are in the most serious financial downturn in our nation's history since the Great Depression," he says. "This book is about the resilience of the human spirit and the way we endure suffering and hardship. The people who lived at the bottom of the horse-racing industry 40 years ago lived this kind of life of hopeful desperation daily. That made it feel important. There's plenty of comedy, and also tragedy and violence—these are all elements of the American nightmare."
In early October, McPherson prepared an advance reading copy and left for the Frankfurt Book Fair. "I came home on Sunday. Monday I read proofs, still jet-lagged, making corrections with Jaimy late Monday night over the phone—dozens and dozens of them. On Tuesday I sent in final changes. On Wednesday it was nominated."
He pauses, reliving the memory and the whirlwind that followed. "We had just one month to do everything we could to fulfill the nomination—since you don't expect to win, you want to make the most of it." Holding his breath, he asked his printer to increase the initial print run from 2,000 copies to 8,000. "The printer not only quadrupled the order, but accelerated the schedule, so we had books within two and a half weeks," he marvels. He sent updated books to the NBA judges, hired a publicist, and did "everything we could to make sure the press would pay attention."
The first big break came when Washington Post sportswriter and Racing Form correspondent Andrew Beyer ran a column headlined "Lord of Misrule Beautifully Captures Language of the Racetrack," proclaiming himself "mesmerized" by Gordon's prose. "So we were off to a truly racing start," grins McPherson.
Still, it was a long shot. Gordon's fellow fiction nominees, all more familiar names, were published by Knopf, Norton, Harper, and Coffee House Press. On November 16, an informal Publishers Weekly poll gave Gordon 10 to 1 odds. At the next night's awards ceremony, her name was not called. McPherson recalls, "There was a momentary hesitation. We heard an L sound—Lionel Schriver? No, Lord of Misrule! That accounts for the eruption of screams from our table."
The mainstream press was as stunned as the author. Janet Maslin's December review admits that Gordon's first five novels flew under the New York Times's radar, then goes on to declare, "But this novel is so assured, exotic, and uncategorizable, with such an unlikely provenance, that it arrives as an incontrovertible winner, a bona fide bolt from the blue."
McPherson still seems amazed by his sudden shift into the fast lane. Between calls from Wall Street Journal and New York Times reporters, he's in constant phone contact with Gordon, and just flew to Michigan to introduce her at a university event. "Sooner or later, all this will be over," he says. "And that will be good too."
He already has projects lined up through 2012. McPherson & Company's current catalogue bears eloquent witness to his editorial vision, encompassing the last volume of George Robert Minkoff's trilogy of historical novels, Thomas McEvilley's books on conceptual art provocateur Yves Klein and performance artists Marina Abramovic and Ulay, "visionary fiction" by Theodore Enslin and Robert Kelly, a Nicaraguan novel translated by Leland H. Chambers, and collected writings of experimental film icons Stan Brakhage and Maya Deren.