As I hoped and repeatedly predicted (here, as early as September 2), Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award for Fiction last night at the Marriot Marquis in Times Square, New York City. Denis Johnson is on a writing assignment in Iraq, so here’s his wife Cindy Lee Johnson accepting his award with a brief, gracious speech:
But that was the end of the night. Let’s start at the beginning, since I was there for the whole thing and can comment on the more esoteric details that you won’t read about it in the New York Times or USA Today (whose hardworking reporter Bob Minzesheimer hung out at the blogger table, along with twittering Sarah, videocamera-wielding Jason Boog and a few other livebloggers linked below. Apparently I was the only blogger to come up with the bright idea of not posting about the event until the following morning, thus allowing me to relax and enjoy the ceremony.)
First, let’s mention the arboreal stage design, which was quite good (and which I tried to feature in the above photo). Now, I know the stage design couldn’t actually be a tipoff that Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke would win (since the judges don’t make a final decision until the day of the awards). But the “broken tree” motif certainly suggested some synchronicity, and there it was.
Before the ceremony, everybody got to mingle at a power-packed cocktail hour. Christopher Hitchens held court at the bar, Toni Morrison basked in the love, Joan Didion sought more isolated ground, Jonathan Franzen worked the crowd smoothly until Ed Champion took the opportunity to question the self-esteemed novelist as to “why won’t you be my Facebook friend?”. If I were Franzen I would have simply said “I can friend or not friend whoever the fuck I like, blog boy!” but Franzen didn’t find this easy way out and instead mumbled some dissemblage into Ed’s microphone which you can hear via Ed’s long list of liveblog posts and spontaneous podcasts linked above. I helped Ed interview Fran Lebowitz, not missing the opportunity to ask her whether or not there would be political fireworks on stage as there had been at a finalists reading the night before. I got a chance to tell Ken Kalfus how much I liked his last novel, said hi to several friends, then went upstairs to the press balcony to extract some decent fresh mozzarella from a few moribund sandwiches and wax existential over at Bookblog (where you can also find some attempted photos).
The first segment of the National Book Awards show was dull, since it featured a paean to the genius of Joan Didion by Michael Cunningham, who may or may not know how to write (The Hours didn’t persuade me) but has absolutely no idea how to speak in front of an audience. His stiff, upper-class elocution suggested every bad stereotype that everybody who isn’t actually part of the literary establishment imagines about the literary establishment. The fact that he was layering on gummy praise for Joan Didion, a writer I consider overrated, didn’t make me like him any better. I agree with him that Joan Didion’s prose feels as cold as dry ice; what I don’t understand is why I’m supposed to admire that. Chilly has never been my favorite temperature.
There was a long pause for dinner, to the annoyance of those of us in the press balcony who were fed sandwiches and pasta from a buffet. I faked a cigarette break with Mary Delli Santi and thus got a chance to meet Walter Kirn, who is one of only two regular critics for the New York Times Book Review who regularly gets high scores from me.
Back upstairs, Sherman Alexie won for his young adult novel, Robert Haas’s Time and Materials won for poetry, which I can’t disapprove of though I was rooting for David Kirby’s underdog House on Boulevard Street. Tim Wiener’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA won for non-fiction, and he seemed like the best choice of the five to me, though I don’t think the five nominees were a very good sample of the best non-fiction of the past year.
It was a dizzying evening, and I felt privileged to be there. Even a smart-ass blogger like me has to be impressed by the literary, editorial, journalistic and business talent assembled at the Marriot Marquis on this fine Wednesday night.