TOBY OLSON'S novel "Seaview" has won the $5,000 PEN/Faulkner Award for the best American work of fiction published in 1982.
"Now I'm really ready for the next novel," an effusive Olson, 45, said from Philadelphis before last night's award ceremony at the Folger Shakespeare Library No wonder: After two decades of writing, 15 books of poetry and two novels, he remains virtually unknown. In 1976, when he published his first novel, "The Life of Jesus," an autobiographical story told in terms of Gospel legend, "I had high expectations--none of which materialized." And last year, when New Directions brought out 2,500 copies of "Seaview," it was resolutely ignored by reviewers.
The novel follows Allen, a golf hustler, and his wife Melinda, who has terminal cancer, as they drive from California to Cape Cod so that she can die in her home town. The couple is pursued by a sado-masochistic, dope-dealing friend who decides to kill Allen after a cocaine deal goes bad, and they finally confront one another on a golf course in the apocalyptic conclusion.
The book, whose tone alternates from straightforward to comic to surreal, garnered only three reviews--including an indifferent 200 words in the Philadelphia Inquirer and a long, damning notice in American Book Review.
"He's primarily a poet, and it shows in his writing," Olson's editor, Peter Glassgold, said last week. Olson, a professor of English at Temple University in Philadelphia, agreed that "in writing it as I did, I was almost making choices against popular success." But the award "vindicates what I was doing," he said, "and now I don't have to concern myself with what readers will think."
Olson now splits his year between nine months of full-time teaching and three months of full-time writng on Cape Cod during the summer recess. "It's kind of schizophrenic," he said, and hopes the award will enable him to get a grant "to get some time away from teaching."
The PEN/Faulkner Award, whose headquarters moved to the Folger last fall after two years at the University of Virginia, is the nation's only major literary prize judged, administered and largely funded by writers. This year's panel of judges--Toni Morrison, Richard Price and Walter Abish, winner of the first PEN/Faulkner Award in 1980--read 250 works of fiction before narrowing the list to Olson and five other nominees: Bobbie Ann Mason, Anne Tyler, George Steiner, Maureen Howard and William S. Wilson, each of whom received $1,000.
Olson's win establishes an interesting pattern to the awards: Abish is also published by New Directions; and the 1981 winner, David Bradley, also teaches at Temple. New Directions' Glassgold, who also edits Abish, said the award shows "that we have good taste, pure and simple," and said he was "exalted" at hearing the news. The reviewers' silence, he said, "almost killed the book. And it might have stifled something in Toby as well."