"This is your year," he told her. "I think you could win the National Book Award." Gordon scoffed, but the book was nominated, and at the awards dinner in November, McPherseon turned out to be right: she won the fiction prize.
How Gordon won that award is a story of how important a publisher can be to a novelist increasingly discouraged about the reception of her work. Gordon had finished a draft of the novel back in 2000, but when her agent shopped it around, six major publishers rejected it. "Somewhere along in there I showed it to Bruce," she says. "He wanted to publish it. I said no."
Gordon and McPherson have known each other since they met in a class at Brown, where she was a graduate student and he an undergrad. "She stood out for the quickness of her mind," McPherson says. "I was dazzled by her." When she had trouble publishing her thesis, the surrealist novel Shamp of the City-Solo, he founded the Treacle publishing house to produce it. The book became an underground hit, and even though Gordon's next two novels also caught on with a small group of dedicated readers, they were too esoteric to make any money.
The next decade was "a bad ten years," Gordon says. Both her parents died, as did her sister's partner. Although Gordon had a good job teaching at Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo, she despaired of finding an audience for her books. While she believed Lord of Misrule had the most commercial promise of anything she'd written (it had real characters and was set in the real, if unfamiliar, world of racetracks), the only person interested in publishing it seemed to be her old friend Bruce McPherson, who was now McPherson & Co., a tiny one-man shop in New York's Hudson Valley.
Gordon refused to let him publish it, she says, partly because she dreaded rereading the manuscript. The protagonists of her early novels had all been rebellious young women, and Maggie Kordoner, one of the main characters, in her draft seemed like more of the same. "That brave, cheeky, young woman—I was sick of her," Gordon says.
McPherson persisted. "Bruce took the old, corrupt file and put it into galleys," she says. "That galvanized me." To Gordon's surprise, she found that Maggie didn't dominate the novel the way she had feared. As Gordon faced middle age alone, childless, and despondent about her writing career, she identified not with cheeky young Maggie, but with the novel's lonely old men, the loan shark, Two-Tie, and the groom, Medicine Ed.
McPherson gave her a publication date: November 15. It was the deadline for books to be considered for the National Book Award. In September, the two held a marathon editing session over the telephone.
When Gordon saw the book for the first time, she discovered that McPherson included the line "Nominated by the Publisher for the National Book Award" on the cover. "It made me want to sink into the ocean," she said.
She learned that her book was a finalist for a National Book Award, and headed to the awards dinner confident that a weightier, more topical book would win. "I truly thought I was safe."
But in life, as in horse racing, nothing is certain.