Johnson's 'Tree of Smoke' Wins National Book Award

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 15, 2007

NEW YORK, Nov. 14 -- Denis Johnson won the National Book Award for fiction Wednesday night for his monumental Vietnam novel, "Tree of Smoke."

Johnson couldn't attend the New York ceremony, his wife, Cindy Lee Johnson, explained while accepting the award in his stead, because he is on assignment in Iraq. She then read a statement of thanks from Johnson to the editors and publishers in the audience "who have given me my life."

New York Times reporter Tim Weiner won the nonfiction award for "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA." Robert Hass won the poetry award for "Time and Materials."

Sherman Alexie won the award for young people's literature, for "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian."

The other fiction finalists were Mischa Berlinski for his novel "Fieldwork," Lydia Davis for her story collection "Varieties of Disturbance," Joshua Ferris for his novel "Then We Came to the End" and Jim Shepard for his story collection "Like You'd Understand, Anyway."

Berlinski and Ferris were both nominated for first novels. At the reception preceding the ceremony at the Marriott Marquis hotel, both professed themselves a bit stunned.

"Humbled, delighted, honored, overwhelmed, a little disbelieving," said Ferris, whose book chronicles the inner life of a Chicago advertising agency. He made the unusual choice to write most of it in the first person plural, he said, because "corporations always talk that way: 'We should do this, we should do that.' "

Berlinski's novel tells of anthropologists, missionaries and tribal people in northern Thailand, where he once worked as a journalist. He did a nonfiction book proposal, he said, but it went nowhere. Then he figured out that his story would be more compelling "if I made up a murder and made up a murderer and made up a victim."

The nonfiction finalists included Edwidge Danticat for her memoir "Brother, I'm Dying," Christopher Hitchens for "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," University of Richmond professor Woody Holton for "Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution" and Arnold Rampersad for "Ralph Ellison: A Biography."

At the reception, Hitchens played down his chances of winning, and said he had no remarks prepared in case he did. He promised one thing, however: He would not go for a cheap laugh by thanking God.

Weiner expressed deep gratitude to Yaddo, the Saratoga Springs, N.Y., artists colony where he spent eight weeks writing with no Internet, no telephone and "12 bankers' boxes of documents." Two thousand words a day were the result.

In poetry the other finalists were Linda Gregerson ("Magnetic North"), David Kirby ("The House on Boulevard St."), the University of Maryland's Stanley Plumly ("Old Heart") and Ellen Bryant Voigt ("Messenger").

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