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National Book Award’s First Cut

The semifinalists for the National Book Awards — 20 of them in four different categories — will be divulged with much fanfare in a PBS radio program next month. Perhaps the most prestigious American literary prize, the NBA is handed out for the best book published between December 1 of the previous year and November 30 of the current year; or at least the “best” as judged by a panel of five designated literary experts. Only publishers are allowed to nominate books for consideration, and self-published books are locked out — a feature of the prize that emphasizes its true function. Namely: to provide advertising for publishers. Like the NCAA, the National Book Award is something of a cartel that protects its own.

Last year 302 books were formally submitted for the fiction prize. The surprise winner was the horse-racing novel Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon — a “bona fide bolt from the blue,” according to Janet Maslin of the New York Times. Published by the “independent literary and arts” house McPherson & Co., the prize was viewed in some precincts as a gesture of support to small publishers. Gordon edged out Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America, Nicole Krauss’s Great House, Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That, and Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel — an undistinguished bunch.

So what fiction is most likely to make the first cut? I don’t know that I can come up with 20, but here are at least 10 that I would nominate if I could (in alphabetical order):

• Jo Ann Beard, In Zanesville (Little, Brown). For a long time now I have been complaining about the absence of place in American fiction (see here and here). Beard’s winsome novel of two girlfriends growing up together in a small Ohio town shows what has been missing and why it adds such a rich dimension to good fiction.

• Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). A novel about a graduate student whose adoration for the traditional English novel — the novel with a marriage plot — collides with her academic allegiance to poststructuralist theory, and her own pre-conjugal adventures. Sounds terrible, I know, but everything that Eugenides touches turns to gold.

• William Giraldi, Busy Monsters (W. W. Norton). A revival of the facetious mode of the early Evelyn Waugh, Giraldi’s first novel tells the uproarious story of a New England nebbish trying to win back his Southern belle’s love.

• Ron Hansen, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion (Scribner). A reconstruction of the famous “dumb-bell murder” case of 1929 told with a fine eye for historical detail and a light, almost undetectable moral touch. (Review coming up in the October COMMENTARY.)

• Ha Jin, Nanjing Requiem (Pantheon). A brave and bracing novel about the heroic American missionaries — the epiphet is Jin’s — who helped save 200,000 civilians from the Rape of Nanjing.

• William Kennedy, Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes (Viking). As a reporter, Kennedy covered the Cuban revolution and the civil rights movement. In the latest installment of his “Albany cycle,” he strings them together in a high-spirited yarn. His novels don’t always cohere, but few writers can compete with Kennedy for sentence-to-sentence enjoyment.

• Lee Martin, Break the Skin (Crown).

• Roland Merullo, The Talk-Funny Girl (Crown). The honest and plainly told story of a girl who “was not treated well” by frightening antisocial parents, and how she redeemed something beautiful from the evil. (Review coming up in the October COMMENTARY.)

• Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia (Scribner).

• Jean Thompson, The Year We Left Home (Simon & Schuster). A family saga that spans thirty years in the lives of four small-town Iowa children and their parents. The novel does not set out to document social changes or memorialize a social class, but rather to suggest that some people still think in terms of what has to be done, even in an age of technological convenience and easy divorce. A work of unusual optimism.

I am already on record as saying that Stone Arabia is the best novel of the year so far (although Merullo’s nearly flawless Talk-Funny Girl is breathing down Spiotta’s neck), and Jeffrey Eugenides is the best American writer born since 1960, but my prediction is that none of these 10 novels will win the National Book Award. It will go to a book few people have heard of and fewer have read.


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