The National Book Critics Circle awards February 26 had a new format, a new location and—for the first time in living memory—were picketed by a group objecting to one of the nominees. As it turned out, that nominee, American Ground by William Langewiesche, which had aroused the ire of New York firefighters by suggesting that some of them had been guilty of minor looting in the World Trade Center cleanup, did not win in its category of general nonfiction, and no reference was made to the book or to the vocal picket line during the proceedings.
Those proceedings were more streamlined than usual; instead of a general introduction of the whole NBCC board, all seated on the stage, the categories were introduced briefly, with the various judges' chairs reading the citations, then brief acceptances from the winners, all on an otherwise empty stage. The setting was the New School University in New York's Greenwich Village, sleeker than the old NYU venue, but rather marred by the single elevator available to take hundreds of people to the following reception in a fifth-floor hall.
The winner in the nonfiction category was Samantha Power's A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (Basic Books/New Republic). Power was an emotional winner, who hoped she wouldn't "pull a Halle Berry," and confessed that after being nominated she had bought all the other nominees' books, found "they're all so good" and worried that hers was longer. Her book, she said, was "about the bystanders on genocide, as told by the upstanders." William H. Gass won the award in criticism for his collection of essays Tests of Time (Knopf) and bore out the judges' praise of his "jazzy riffs" with a brief and witty acceptance in which he expressed gratitude to the judges for their "errant ways" and suggested there might be other critics "eager to stick a spoon into my unjust deserts." The only thing that would keep him from such an awards ceremony, he said, was "an invitation to a sleepover in the Lincoln Bedroom," which he regretted was no longer available.
B.H. Fairchild was the poetry winner for his Norton collection with the winsome title Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest; he allowed that after many years of trying to interest New York editors in his work ("Fairchilds keep going, but they don't make fools of themselves"), he had vowed to give up, but was saved from that ultimate renunciation of his muse by an acceptance from little Alice James Press. Now he owed his greater visibility to Norton's Jill Bialosky.
The biography/autobiography award bypassed the obvious favorite, Robert Caro's second Lyndon Johnson volume, and went to another Knopf title, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, the second volume in Janet Browne's mammoth biography. This was cited by the judges as "a great rush of a book, with the qualities of a great 19th-century novel." Knopf's Sonny Mehta, accepting on the author's behalf, and replacing editor Kent Schneider, read a brief acceptance in which Browne expressed gratification for being able to come so close to the great man and his family.
Another absentee was Britain's Ian McEwan, the fiction winner for his very successful Atonement (Doubleday/Nan A. Talese). In a graceful acceptance read for him by Talese, the novelist said he was at work on his next novel, as yet uncertain whether it had jelled or was destined for "the shredder my wife had thoughtfully bought me." He had imagined that Atonement was too English in its style and references to be widely understood here, and had been astonished and gratified by the perception shown by American critics and readers: "I had thought it would be an acquired taste." He paid warm tribute to Talese herself and to agent Georges Borchardt.
The Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing was given to Maureen McLane, who writes for the Chicago Tribune and who found the award "a delight and a spur," adding that she was even grateful to her subjects.
Poet, critic and translator Richard Howard, who was given the Ivan Sandrof Award for Lifetime Achievement, was cited for his excellence in each of these fields. He paraphrased actress Ruth Gordon on receiving an Oscar at over 70, saying it was "very encouraging" at his age. Did such an award mean that his lifetime of achievement was now over? "If not another lifetime, at least you've given me the time of my life."