The moment was sliding into symbolism.
David Bradley had just won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction Saturday night, and was approaching the podium in the Rotunda at the University of Virginia. Above him was the vast domed radiance of Thomas Jefferson's architecture, before him a silent constellation of literary lights: judges Walker Percy, John Hawkes and Wesley Brown, prize organizer Mary Lee Settle, fellow nominees Robert Stone, Richard Bausch, Marilynne Robinson and Mark Helprin, and over 100 envoys from the world of contemporary letters, including publisher-author Robert Giroux and O.B. Hardison of the Folger Library.
In this austere and elegant room, designed by a slave owner, the 31-year-old black author--whose novel, "The Chaneysville Incident," follows five generations of a black family's odyssey from slavery to Vietnam--was about to give his acceptance speech. The air was thick with purport.
But Bradley, a compact, balding figure with bottle-bottom glasses and a rough-thatched beard of Old Testament proportions, peered out over the throng and immediately disarmed the solemnity. After talking for two days with his fellow nominees, he said, "I do feel a little strange" being chosen above them. "But I'm going to keep the big check anyway." He thanked the organizers, read briefly from his book, and then paused ominously. "And now," he intoned into the eager hush, "in the immortal words of Ray Charles . . . let's go get stoned!"
It was a sentiment widely shared during the weekend gathering, and fervently acted upon directly after the restrained brevity of the ceremony. Mary Lee Settle, head of the southern chaper of PEN, the international writers' organization that sponsors the award, opened the event by tracing its history from two antecedents: the prize William Faulkner created from his Nobel Prize money; and the now-defunct National Book Awards. The PEN/Faulkner prize arose when the NBA was replaced by the industry-dominated American Book Awards, but represents, Settle said, no animosity toward the Association of American Publishers, whom she thanked "for 30 years they did not interfere" with the NBA selection process and "protected" the judges from criticism by commercial interests.
Short citations were read for each of the six finalists. Bausch's "Take Me Back" was called "a seamless, perfectly wrought novel" in which the author's control was "exhilarating"; Stone's "A Flag for Sunrise" was deemed "a brilliant meditation on our best and worst intentions as a nation"; and Bradley was lauded for having "fashioned a tale of how the past is commemorated in ritual and keeps a hold on our lives." After each citation Hardison, an author himself who said he was there "as an attendant lord to swell a pageant," gave checks for $1,000 to all the nominees except Donald Barthelme, who failed to attend. Richard Gilman, head of the PEN American Center in New York, presented the Award for Fiction and Hardison handed Bradley a $5,000 check.
"The best part of this whole thing," Bradley said afterward, relenting momentarily from his buoyant sarcasm, "has been hanging out" with the other writers, "drinking and telling lies." Many of them met for the first time on Friday--either at their hotels (agog at the sumptuous antebellum aura of his, Bradley said, "They asked me if I wanted anything, and I said, 'Yeah--I want a slave!' "), or at the evening reception given by university president Frank Hereford and his wife, Ann, at their home. It was the first of many opportunities to irrigate the imagination during two days of mutual autographing, story-swapping, ribald jokes and general acclimatization to the white-columned ambiance, as bourbon gushed like tap water and the nominees' sharp accents scuffed at the lustrous southern consonants of local worthies.
The honors touched each author differently. Bausch, who teaches at George Mason University and proved the most zealously gregarious of the nominees, at times seemed bemused by his success: "I just shook hands with Walker Percy! I just kissed Mary Lee Settle on the cheek!" Marilynne Robinson, the author of "Housekeeping" who arrived with her husband from Northampton, Mass., said, "This is the first thing I've ever written and I'm just flattened by the attention it's getting," although "I'm looking forward to the time when they'll quit calling me a 'young writer.' "
Stone, deeply tanned from a year teaching at U.C.L.A., was less enthused, and kept to the perimeter of most gatherings. But then his new novel has had considerable commercial success, and is nominated for an American Book Award, to be given later this month. "Yeah, I've had a good run with it," he said, "but I got on The New York Times best-seller list by mistake. There was a computer error and they told me about it afterward. But I sold a lot of books that I otherwise wouldn't have sold."
Helprin, 35, a product of Harvard, Princeton and Oxford, arrived from his home in Brooklyn. An earnest man with carefully parted hair and horn-rim glasses ("My mother says she's proud of me because I look like George Will"), Helprin said, "This is the first prize I ever won in my life." It's surprising, since the author of "Ellis Island and Other Stories" is something of an intellectual dynamo: He just completed a 1,500-page novel about "an Irish burglar in New York and his horse," while also finishing a PhDdissertation on European defense strategies and plotting a run for New York State Assembly. His only worry about the award is that "I detest writing for an elite. I'm ridiculously egalitarian."
Bradley, who teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia, had some qualms himself. "I'm a perfectionist and I'm worried about it making me a little sloppy." But, he says, "the truth is in the typewriter."
The judges agreed. Settle said that one of the "built-in safeguards" of the award is that among the three judges, "there is always one representative of experimental writing, one traditional novelist, and one tough Young Turk, thank God, to watch us all." But all three found most of the 265 books they examined to be disappointing and poorly written. Walker Percy, a gray and courtly eminence, said, "So many of them were bad. I hear people say how hard it is to get novels published these days," but judging from the entries, "I find it hard to believe that anybody had any trouble." The breakdown: "I would say that 200 were bad, 20 were good and 10 were first-rate." Wesley Brown, author of "Tragic Magic," agreed. Although "we have different tastes" all put a premium on stories that "took risks," thus eliminating "a lot of genre books, spy novels and detective stories, which were limited in what they set out to do." He had urged Bradley's book on the other two judges, neither of whom had read it early on.
John Hawkes, whose latest novel, "Virginie," will be published by Harper & Row next month, discerned a "new American realism" with "insistence on concrete detail" and applauded a trend toward novels like Bausch's in which "a full measure of the ordinary is very important." But he said, "the general quality was not good," and "the majority of books simply really aren't serious," and didn't "exemplify minds concerned with language."
What does it augur for the future of the American novel? "I can't say," said Percy, "that I feel too hopeful."