National Book Award Finalists

I was stuck on a subway when the National Book Awards were announced, but I have to say that the nonfiction finalists are a far more interesting crop (Hitch!) than the fiction finalists. Maybe I was hoping for a more vivid and crackling selection similar to what we had last year. But it may very well be possible that the best books of the year weren’t coming from mainstream literary fiction, but within genre (Brian Francis Slattery’s Spaceman Blues), small presses (Antoine Wilson’s The Interloper) and from across the pond (Rupert Thomson’s Death of a Murder and, depending upon whether you count it as a 2007 book, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, et al.). So run my own literary sensibilities at any rate. But I likewise think that Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World deserved a perch, as did Tom Bissell’s wildly ambitious and criminally overlooked The Father of All Things in the nonfiction category.

Before I reveal the awards, and with the full acknowledgment that Robert Birnbaum has likewise bandied about this passage, I’d just like to ask whether any of the five fiction finalists came close to this moment of wisdom from Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs (another book I’m tempted to include among the best of the year):

Odd, how our view of human destiny changes over the course of a lifetime. In youth we believe what the young believe, that life is all choice. We stand before a hundred doors, choose to enter one, where we’re faced with a hundred more and then choose again. We choose not just what we’ll do, but who we’ll be. Perhaps the sound of all those doors swinging shut behind us each time we select this one or that one should trouble us, but it doesn’t. Nor does the fact that the doors often are identical and even lead in some cases to the exact same place. Occasionally a door is locked, but no matter, since so many others remain available. The distinct possibility that choice itself may be an illusion is something we disregard, because we’re curious to know what’s behind that next door, the one we hope will lead us to the very heart of the mystery. Even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary we remain confident that when we emerge, with all our choosing done, we’ll have found not just our true destination but also its meaning. The young see life this way, front to back, their eyes to the telescope that anxiously scans the infinite sky and its myriad possibilities. Religion, seducing us with free will while warning us of our responsibility, reinforces youth’s need to see itself at the dramatic center, saying yes to this and no to that, against the backdrop of a great moral reckoning.

But at some point all of that changes. Doubt, born of disappointment and repetition, replaces curiosity. In our weariness we begin to sense the truth, that more doors have closed behind that remain ahead, and for the first time we’re tempted to swing the telescope around and peer at the world through the wrong end — though who can say it’s wrong? How different things look then! Larger patterns emerge, individual decisions receding into insignificance. To see a life back to front, as everyone begins to do in middle age, is to strip it of its mystery and wrap it in inevitability, drama’s enemy. Or so it sometimes seems to me, Louis Charles Lynch. The man I’ve become, the life I’ve lived, what are these but dominoes that fall not as I would have them, but simply as they must?

And yet not all mystery is lost, nor all meaning. Regardless of our vantage point, some events manage to retain their drama and significance.

Here then are this year’s finalists.


Mischa Berlinski, Fieldwork
Lydia Davis, Varieties of Disturbance
Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End
Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke
Jim Shepard, Like You’d Understand, Anyway


Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying
Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
Woody Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution
Arnold Rampersad, Ralph Ellison: A Biography
Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA


Linda Gregerson, Magnetic North
Robert Hass, Time and Materials
David Kirby, The House on Boulevard St.
Stanley Plumly, Old Heart
Ellen Bryant Voigt, Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006


Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Kathleen Duey, Skin Hunger: A Resurrection of Magic, Book One
M. Sindy Felin, Touching Snow
Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret
Sara Zarr, Story of a Girl


  1. Any publisher can submit two books in each category for the National Book Awards. There’s a fee attached to each book. Every single submission is read by the judging panel. When Rick Moody was the fiction judge, one or two small press fictions made it to the finals.

    And, actually, this year’s bunch of fiction finalists is really strong, every one of them deserving a nomination. It will be an upset if anybody but Johnson wins. But having read Tree Of Smoke, there’s a reason for that.

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