Vietnam War Novel Wins National Book Award
By MOTOKO RICH
“Tree of Smoke,” [Hartness Library System 813.54 J63t] a sweeping novel by Denis Johnson about the Vietnam War that features intersecting stories of an array of American and Vietnamese soldiers and intelligence officers, won the National Book Award for fiction last night.
Mr. Johnson, who had been widely favored to take the prize for the book, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, was on assignment in Iraq. His wife, Cindy Lee Johnson, accepted the award. She read from a speech Mr. Johnson had prepared, in which he said he was “very sorry to miss this one chance to dress up in a tuxedo in front of so many representatives of the world of literature and say thank you.”
In the nonfiction category, Tim Weiner, a reporter at The New York Times, took the prize for “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the C.I.A.” (Doubleday). [Hartness Library System 327.1273 W63L]
Mr. Weiner, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on national security programs, examined more than 50,000 documents and interviewed hundreds of C.I.A. veterans for his book, a critical history of C.I.A. failures.
Accepting the award, Mr. Weiner said his work was “a testament to the power of the record revealed and maybe to the fact that our democracy, in spite of everything, is still open enough to see a glimpse of what we have wrought abroad.”
In presenting the nonfiction prize, David Shields, the chairman of the judges’ panel, hinted at a battle among the judges in selecting the winner. “We quarreled, we tussled, we cajoled, we tossed verbal brick-bats, we walked out, we walked back in,” Mr. Shields said.
The awards were presented at a black-tie dinner at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Manhattan. Fran Lebowitz, the writer and humorist, was the host of the ceremony, and drew laughs when she saluted a roster of previous “nonwinners,” including J. D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, Faulkner and Toni Morrison, who was sitting in the audience.
Each of this year’s winners received a bronze statue and $10,000.
The influence of a National Book Award at bookstores can be mixed. Last year’s fiction winner, “The Echo Maker” by Richard Powers, sold 52,000 copies in hardcover and 31,000 copies in paperback, according to Nielsen BookScan, which measures about 70 percent of retail sales. But the previous year’s fiction winner, “Europe Central” by William T. Vollmann, sold only 6,000 copies in hardcover and 26,000 copies in paperback.
Last night’s ceremony marked the 58th year that the National Book Awards have been given. Winners over the years have included Norman Mailer for “The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History” in 1969, Pauline Kael for “Deeper Into Movies” in 1974 and Cormac McCarthy for “All the Pretty Horses” in 1992.
The prize for young people’s literature was awarded to Sherman Alexie for “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” (Little, Brown & Company), an autobiographical story of a 14-year-old Spokane Indian who leaves his poverty-stricken reservation school and moves to a wealthy, all-white school.
Robert Hass, a former poet laureate, won the award for poetry for “Time and Materials,” published by Ecco/HarperCollins.
The National Book Foundation also awarded its Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Joan Didion. Ms. Didion, the essayist and novelist, won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2005 for “The Year of Magical Thinking.”
In presenting the award, the novelist Michael Cunningham said: “I cannot think of another contemporary writer who has so thoroughly shown us to ourselves.”
Ms. Didion, who received a standing ovation, also paid tribute to Mr. Mailer, who won the same award in 2005 and died last week. “There was someone who really, truly knew what writing was for,” she said.
Terry Gross, the host and executive producer of National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” program, received the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. Ira Glass, host and producer of “This American Life,” a public radio show, presented the award, saying Ms. Gross’s interviews with authors nourish “the place inside of you that makes you love books in the first place.”
Ms. Gross, a probing questioner who has interviewed hundreds of authors, said there was one question she was frequently tempted to ask but rarely does. “The question is, ‘How do you manage to look into my own heart?’” she said, adding, “It is a question no writer can ever really answer.”
For an alternative review of Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA go to the CIA website here