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").

Kirby joked about the poets' status relative to the other nominees. When poets get together, he said, they "sit around in black robes and hoods and plan to assassinate novelists."

Finalists in young people's literature included Kathleen Duey ("Skin Hunger"), Kensington debut novelist M. Sindy Felin ("Touching Snow"), Brian Selznick ("The Invention of Hugo Cabret") and Sara Zarr ("Story of a Girl").

"Tree of Smoke" was widely considered the front-runner for the fiction award. Lauding Johnson's novel as a "conventionally satisfying but formally daring masterpiece," Harper's reviewer John Jeremiah Sullivan described it as "a 614-page multigenerational, transnational, braided morality saga about Westerners in Southeast Asia and the Southeast Asians who have to figure out how to stay alive around them."

"To write a fat novel about the Vietnam War nearly 35 years after it ended is an act of literary bravado," David Ignatius wrote in The Washington Post. "To do so as brilliantly as Denis Johnson has in 'Tree of Smoke' is positively a miracle."

Johnson's work has won the admiration of fellow writers ever since he published his first novel, "Angels," a quarter-century ago. He remained relatively unknown to the broader public at least until his searing 1992 story collection, "Jesus' Son," which drew its material from the years Johnson lost to drugs and alcohol in his 20s.

Asked a few days before the awards to describe Johnson's writing, Lorin Stein, the editor who worked on "Tree of Smoke" at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, said it was hard to know where to start. Johnson is "religious-minded" and "concerned for the souls of his characters," Stein said, but he's also a realist who "writes about poor people in a way that makes you care about injustice."

Three of the five fiction finalists -- Johnson, Davis and Berlinski -- were Farrar, Straus authors. Stein worked with them all, but he was quick to deflect credit. An editor's investment with a book, he said, "no matter how intense," will be a matter of weeks or months and will lack the "cold sweat this-is-my-whole-life" feeling writers must live with for years.

Joan Didion -- who won the nonfiction award for "The Year of Magical Thinking" two years ago -- this year accepted a medal for "distinguished contribution to American letters."

Writers know how to write when they begin, Didion said. "What we learn from doing it is what writing was for." Then she recalled that she'd been at the National Book Awards two years before, when Norman Mailer received the same award she was getting now.

"There was someone who really, truly knew what writing was for," Didion said.

"Fresh Air" host Terry Gross accepted an award for "outstanding service to the American literary community." Comic writer Fran Lebowitz served as master of ceremonies for the second year in a row.

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