In the spirit of Tom Wolfe, Thomas Pynchon won’t attend the National Book Awards

November 19, 2013
Thomas Pynchon's "Bleeding Edge" is a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction, but the author isn't coming to the ceremony on Wednesday.
Thomas Pynchon’s “Bleeding Edge” is a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction, but the author isn’t coming to the ceremony on Wednesday. (Courtesy of Penguin)

The reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon is a finalist for a National Book Award for “Bleeding Edge,” but he won’t be attending Wednesday night’s ceremony, according to a story in The New York Times by Julie Bosman.

That takes me back to 1998, the first year I reported on the National Book Awards. Tom Wolfe was up for the fiction prize for a fantastic novel called “A Man in Full.” It’s about a wheeler-dealer real estate developer in modern-day Atlanta. At almost 800 pages of roiling bravado — including the most outrageous sex scene ever written (about horses) — it had generated Moon-landing-like media coverage: Think Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” but from an author who knew how to generate publicity like P.T. Barnum.

“A Man in Full” had been nominated even before it was officially published. That was technically within the rules, but it added to the novel’s Sherman-like approach. Having already won a National Book Award for nonfiction in 1980 for “The Right Stuff,” Wolfe seemed destined, fated, preordained to be the first writer to win in both categories.

Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full" was the book to beat in 1998, but its author didn't show up. (Courtesy Farrar Straus Giroux)
Tom Wolfe’s “A Man in Full” was the book to beat in 1998, but its author didn’t show up. (Courtesy Farrar Straus Giroux)

That cold November night, the black-tied literati gathered in the Times Square Marriott Marquis. But where was Wolfe? It seemed inconceivable to me that he would miss this ceremony. But maybe the White Suited One suspected something we didn’t. He never showed up. Word came down that he had an appearance scheduled in Atlanta that night, and he didn’t want to disappoint his readers.

I thought that was a classy move — and it turned out to be prescient, too. A self-effacing woman from the Washington area, Alice McDermott — the anti-Wolfe — snatched the prize away from “A Man in Full” with a quiet, mournful novel called “Charming Billy.”

The next day, I met with Roger Straus, the president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Wolfe’s publisher — and McDermott’s. He was in good spirits.

“Tom didn’t need that prize,” he told me. He’d already sold tens of thousands of copies of “A Man in Full” in Atlanta alone.

Maybe this year’s Tom doesn’t need that prize either. My money’s on Rachel Kushner’s brilliant novel “The Flamethrowers.”

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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