Denis Johnson’s bulging and brilliant Vietnam War novel Tree of Smoke, published by FSG, was awarded the National Book Award for fiction at this year’s gala awards ceremony at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. Johnson is in Iraq and his wife Cindy Lee accepted his NBA statue and opened an envelope he had left with her, that she said was marked,“just in case.” Reading the note she said Johnson wrote that he was “sorry to miss this chance to dress up in a tuxedo in front of the literary world and say thank you.”
The nonfiction award went to the Tim Weiner’s damning examination of American intelligence policy, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA from Doubleday. Poet Robert Hass, a former NBA finalist, was awarded the poetry prize for his book Time and Materials, published by Ecco/Harper Collins. And longtime adult novelist Sherman Alexie won the Young People’s Literature Award for his first young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, published by Little, Brown. Alexie quipped, “I should have been writing YA all along,” in his acceptance speech.
Hosted by the perennially witty Fran Lebowitz, this year’s National Book Awards ceremony was marked by striking writers walking a picket line outside the hotel and tributes to novelist and past National Book Award winner Norman Mailer, who died November 10. Noting the strikers outside and her own legendary avoidance of writing, Lebowitz cracked, “I’m in sympathy with the striking writers. I’m still honoring the last strike from 1988.” As a running gag, she spent the evening reading from a long list of NBA “non-winners”—J.D. Salinger in 1952, Nabokov in 1959, Harper Lee in 1961—distinguished writers who were nominated for an NBA but did not win.
The NBA’s 2007 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters went to novelist and essayist Joan Didion. And the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community was awarded to Terry Gross, NPR radio host and executive producer of the interview show Fresh Air. Accepting her award Didion said, “The last time I was here , Norman Mailer was getting this award. There was someone who really knew what writing was for.”
Fiction:Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson (FSG)
Nonfiction:Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner (Doubleday)
Poetry:Time and Materials by Robert Hass (Ecco/HarperCollins)
Young People’s Literature:The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown)