Judges for the National Book Award honored a comeback, giving the fiction award to Peter Matthiessen's “Shadow Country,” a thorough revision of a trilogy of novels from the 1990s. The 81-year-old author last won a National Book Award nearly 30 years ago.
“I'm back!” exclaimed Matthiessen, who received the nonfiction prize in 1979 for “The Snow Leopard,” and was a finalist in two previous years. He consoled his fellow finalists, three of whom hadn't been born when he was first published. “And they're going to be back, too.”
Other winners announced Wednesday night were Annette Gordon-Reed in nonfiction, for "The Hemingses of Monticello"; Mark Doty's “Fire to Fire” in poetry; and former genre writer-for-hire Judy Blundell in young people's literature, for “What I Saw and How I Lied.”
Publishers, who paid up to $25,000 for a table during a time of poor sales, dined on baked tagliolini and roast filet of beef at a literary celebration held under the 70-foot (21-meter) ceiling and Wedgewood dome of Cipriani on Wall Street, a setting unlikely for literature or celebrating.
“Wall Street is not at the moment a street of riches, but of ruin and broken dreams,” attendee Ron Chernow, the business historian and former book award winner, told The Associated Press. “We're having cocktails and wearing tuxedos and it doesn't feel completely right.”
Awards host Eric Bogosian joked to the audience about the gilded venue: “This was a bank once, and they built banks like this because banks never fail.”
The economy inspired nervous laughter; the name Barack Obama happy, relieved applause. Bogosian called the bookish president-elect, “in the broadest sense of the word, a reader.” Noting that Obama has been openly influenced by Doris Kearns Goodwin's Lincoln biography, “Team of Rivals,” Bogosian commented, “That's just so cool.”
Honorary award winner Maxine Hong Kingston, who, like Obama, spent many years in Hawaii, praised his way of “putting things right by talking them through.” Fellow honorary winner Barney Rosset, the publisher and literary agitator, called Obama "a dynamic leader," a miracle. Declared the 86-year-old Rosset, who walked gamely to the podium, with a cane, but grinned boldly: “For the first time in recent memory I am not thinking of renouncing my American passport.”
Obama also starred in the acceptance speeches of the nonfiction winner, Gordon-Reed, and poetry winner Mark Doty, who cited the election and his recent marriage to his male partner: “We are on a path to equality for all Americans and nothing is going to turn us back.”
Matthiessen, a world traveler, naturalist and founder of the Paris Review, is one of the great names in modern letters, but few — including Matthiessen — expected to see him nominated this year. His novel, neither new nor old, condenses and deepens his previous work about a ruthless landowner from the Florida Everglades. As he wrote in the book's foreword, he had never been happy with the second volume of the trilogy, "Lost Man's River," and so returned to the rural Florida setting of the early 20th century and retold his Faulkernian epic of a community haunted by a violent and racist past.
“This book was quite a trial for everybody, including me,” he said, thanking his publisher, the Modern Library, for agreeing to release the new work. “They (the original books) weren't bestsellers. They didn't make a lot of money.”
The other fiction finalists, whose books all revolved around themes of exile and return, were Marilynne Robinson's "Home," Aleksandar Hemon's “The Lazarus Project,” and debut authors Salvatore Scibona ("The End") and Rachel Kushner (“Telex From Cuba”).
Runners-up in nonfiction were Jane Mayer for "The Dark Side," a close look into the war against terrorism; Jim Sheeler's “Final Salute”; Joan Wickersham's “The Suicide Index”; and Drew Gilpin Faust's Civil War history, “This Republic of Suffering.”
In poetry, the nominees were Frank Bidart, for “Watching the Spring Festival”; Mark Doty, “Fire to Fire: New and Collected Poems"; Reginald Gibbons' "Creatures of a Day"; Richard Howard's "Without Saying"; and Patricia Smith, for "Blood Dazzler."
The other young people's literature finalists were Laurie Halse Anderson's “Chains,” Kathi Appelt's “The Underneath” E. Lockhart's “The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks” and Tim Tharp for “The Spectacular Now.”
Winners each received $10,000.
The awards, founded in 1950, are sponsored by the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization that offers numerous educational and literary programs.