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‘Tree of Smoke’ wins National Book Award

Denis Johnson’s 600-page novel is a  journey through the physical, moral and spiritual extremes of the Vietnam War and its aftermath.
/ Source: The Associated Press

With the United States fighting an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, stories of espionage and critiques of foreign policy were winners at the 58th annual National Book Awards.

Denis Johnson’s “Tree of Smoke,” a 600-page journey through the physical, moral and spiritual extremes of the Vietnam War, won the fiction award Wednesday night, while Tim Weiner’s “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA,” won in nonfiction.

Robert Hass’ “Time and Materials,” which includes several poems critical of the Iraq war and the Bush administration, won for poetry. The prize for young people’s literature went to Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”

Each of the winners received $10,000. Runners-up received $1,000.

Johnson’s novel, which he has said he first thought of in the early 1980s, has been widely praised since coming out this fall. It tells of spies, counterspies and others caught up in the blur and horror of Vietnam from the day after President Kennedy was shot until the early 1980s.

The author of “Jesus’ Son” and other works earned praise for “Tree of Smoke’s” recognizable story about the certainty of exploration and suffering and the hope for salvation.

“I’m very sorry to miss this one chance to dress up in a tuxedo in front of so many representatives from the world of literature, and say thank you,” the author said in a statement read by his wife, Cindy.

Tweaking “God is Not Great” author Christopher Hitchens, whom he obliquely referred to as “one of our nonfiction nominees,” Johnson concluded by saying, “I’d like to thank God.”

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The 58-year-old Johnson, who lives in New Mexico, rarely talks to the media and is currently on a writing assignment in Iraq. It was the fifth time in the past eight years that an author published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux has won in fiction, with previous winners including Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” and Richard Powers’ “The Echo Maker.”

Joan Didion and National Public Radio host Terry Gross were received honorary medals. Didion, who two years ago won the National Book Award in nonfiction for “The Year of Magical Thinking,” noted that Norman Mailer had been at the ceremony then.

Mailer, a former National Book Awards winner who died Saturday at age 84, was “someone who really ... knew what writing was for,” Didion said. Mailer also was praised by Hass, who recalled giving a poetry reading decades ago at Mailer’s home and how “enormously generous he was to young writers.”

Hass, a former U.S. poet laureate who accepted his prize from the current laureate, head poetry judge Charles Simic, began his speech by quoting someone who had never won any prizes, Emily Dickinson: “Success is counted sweetest/By those who ne’er succeed.”

Alexie, best known for such adult novels as “Ten Little Indians,” won for a semi-autobiographical story of an American Indian at an all-white high school. A member of the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene tribes, he gave an emotional speech in which he remembered Ezra Jack Keats’ classic “The Snowy Day,” the first book Alexie read that included characters who resembled him both physically and in all his “gorgeous loneliness” and “splendid isolation.”

Writing about young people, of course, isn’t the same as being with them. Alexie, who has two children, was asked after the ceremony if he had told his family the good news.

“Yes,” said Alexie, “I called them right away and they wanted to know when I was coming home.”