- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 18, 2009

NEW YORK | Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin,” a novel about daring, luck and mortality in 1970s New York, won the fiction prize Wednesday night at the 60th annual National Book Awards.

McCann, who has called his book an act of hope written in part as a response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, praised the generosity of American fiction and of the American people and dedicated his prize to a fellow Irish-American, “good old” Frank McCourt.

“I think he’s dancing upstairs,” McCann said of the “Angela’s Ashes” memoirist, who died last summer after a battle with cancer.

T.J. Stiles’ biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, “The First Tycoon,” was the nonfiction winner and Keith Waldrop’s “Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy” won for poetry. The young people’s literature award went to Phillip Hoose’s “Claudette Colvin,” based on the true story of an early civil rights heroine, who joined Hoose on the stage. He thanked her for letting him relate her story, which he had feared would vanish “under history’s rug.”

“We have saved that story,” Hoose said of Colvin, 70, who as a teenager was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Ala. bus, months before a similar incident made Rosa Parks a symbol of defiance.

Stories of oppressors and underdogs, of rich and poor, were common themes among Wednesday night’s nominees.

Finalists included Bonnie Jo Campbell’s short fiction about hard times in Michigan, “American Salvage” and Daniyal Mueenuddin’s tales of the class divide in Pakistan, “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.”

Money, or lack of it, also shaded McCann’s book and two other nominated novels: Marcel Theroux’s “Far North” and Jayne Anne Phillips’ “Lark & Termite.”

“Money does matter, especially when you haven’t got any,” Campbell said during a recent interview. “A lot of the trouble in my book comes from folks not having enough money to get by. In Michigan a lot of folks are losing their jobs, or losing their benefits when their jobs go to part-time, and that causes stress and trouble.”

A special prize, voted on by the public, was given to “The Complete Stories” of Flannery O’Connor as the best of all fiction winners in the awards’ 60 year history. Finalists included story collections by Eudora Welty and John Cheever and Ralph Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man.”

The ceremony was held at the palatial restaurant Cipriani Wall Street, the kind of gilded hall where the likes of Vanderbilt would have roamed. The host was Andy Borowitz, a satirist with little regard for barons of commerce who joked about not being paid for his services, because that’s “what publishing’s all about — a lot of hard work. Then nothing.”

Borowitz joked that next year’s favorite for the fiction prize was Sarah Palin’s “Going Rogue,” the best-selling memoir she was promoting in Grand Rapids, Mich., while the literary elite gathered in New York.

The humor turned even darker when a lifetime achievement award was presented — by actress Joanne Woodward — to Gore Vidal, 84, melancholy and wheelchair bound, his baritone weak as he lamented the war in Afghanistan, longed for the presidency of the “gallant” Franklin Roosevelt and looked downward, presumably to a place very far from McCourt, as he called out to his fallen (and unforgiven) conservative enemy, the late William F. Buckley.

“Usually, I let him out at midnight,” Vidal said of Buckley, with whom he feuded for decades.

The skies cleared after Vidal finished and was followed by honorary medalist , 39, nervously wringing his hands, praising Vidal as one of his heroes, celebrating the acceptance of “strange” in publishing and calling the present a “golden” time for the written word.

Cited for his contributions to the literary community, Eggers told the audience it would be “full of optimism” if it could see some of the students he has met through his 826 Valencia project, which helps young people with writing skills.

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On the Net:

https://www.nationalbook.org/nba.html

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