As much of the press has noted, I obviously didn't expect to win the National Book Award for Lord of Misrule
, wore an old — but defiantly red — dress to the banquet, and had no speech ready, though I'd been told that every finalist should. And by the way I deny the false rumor, reported in the LA Times
that when the winner for fiction was announced, I screamed. Screaming is not in my repertory, as one can read quite plainly in my essay
on the flasher I used to encounter regularly on my running trail. It was my sister Hilry Gordon who screamed at the National Book Awards. Up until November 17, 2010, I'd have said, mistakenly, that screaming wasn't in her repertory either.
I still find it amazing that Lord of Misrule, a slightly undersized novel about powerless and desperate folks on a lowdown and dirty racetrack in West Virginia in 1970, the middle of the war in Vietnam, which doesn't get mentioned once in the book, could win the National Book Award for Fiction. After all, it was up against the American health care system (Lionel Shriver's So Much for That), Alexis de Tocqueville (Peter Carey's Parrot and Olivier in America — and Peter Carey is one of my favorite writers), and 100 years of Asian immigration into the Bay area (Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel) — all ingenious and well-wrought novels. The book usually mentioned as the favorite in the days leading up to the National Book Awards, Nicole Krauss's Great House, referenced the Holocaust and desaparecidos in Chile. I didn't think Lord of Misrule would have the topical weight to hold its own against these others in a public forum. I don't mean to dis my own book, which is the best made novel I've done. I have a lot of respect for it on that score. But I couldn't imagine five judges daring to choose Lord of Misrule out of such a field.
That's why it was churlish of me not to prepare a speech, and in hindsight I'm ashamed of my self-absorption. It had taken nerve for the judges even to make me a finalist — and Lord of Misrule was a small press book besides. Great favor beyond all prediction had already been shown to the likes of me, and I could come tripping to the National Book Awards with no treacherous expectations, and no lascivious interest on the part of the press to get my hopes up. Everyone knew that I had already had more than I had any right to expect.
Although I did not share in it, I think I can say that the mood right after the announcement was a little dark. The judges were putting themselves way out there, and plenty of people, readers and critics alike, were not thanking them for it. Until Janet Maslin's good review appeared in the daily New York Times two weeks later, the whole enterprise was shaking — at least for me — under a cloud of dread.
So the least I could have done that night was to prepare one line on the off-chance: "I thank the judges for their courage and independence — and for choosing my book, Lord of Misrule."