a literary prize administered by writers rather than critics -- yesterday announced its nominations for the five best works of fiction of 1984.
After considering some 250 novels and short-story collections, the three-member group settled on Harriet Doerr's "Stones for Ibarra," Donald Hays' "The Dixie Association," David Leavitt's "Family Dancing," James Purdy's "On Glory's Course" and Tobias Wolff's "The Barracks Thief."
As usual, this year's committee -- composed of novelists Doris Betts, Toby Olson and Robert Towers -- demonstrated remarkable independence from general critical opinion. Four of the PEN-Faulkner choices never madethe final slate for The American Book Awards (TABA) this year or the National Book Critics Circle Award. "Stones for Ibarra," however, did receive TABA's First Work of Fiction prize.
Doerr's novel -- about an American couple drawn to Mexico just as the husband learns he is dying of leukemia -- was widely reviewed and admired, in part because it was such a remarkably accomplished first book for a 73-year-old author. By contrast, Leavitt has been hailed as a major short-story writer, even though he is only in his early twenties. The best of his work focuses on homosexuals who may have troubles with their families, friends and lovers, but have already come to terms with their sexual identities.
One of the pioneers of this more open, often witty attitude toward unconventional life styles has long been James Purdy, much praised by writers as various as playwrights Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams and satirist Fran Lebowitz. He is best known for his novels "Malcolm" and "The Nephew" -- both of which were out of print until his publisher reissued them in a recent omnibus edition. This latest novel, "On Glory's Course," focuses on the sexually repressed town of Fonthill during the 1930s -- and on its arbiter of manners, Adele Bevington, a woman with a mysterious past.
Tobias Wolff's extremely short novel deals with three paratroopers, awaiting assignment to Vietnam, who discover the exhilaration of danger and the meaning of friendship when they are caught up in a forest fire near an ammunition dump. Besides "The Barracks Thief," Wolff is the author of the critically admired "In the Gardens of the North American Martyrs" and of prize-winning short stories.
Least known of the nominees, Donald Hays teaches at the University of Arkansas and works part-time in a book store. His comic novel "The Dixie Association" follows a season with the Arkansas Reds, a minor league baseball team. Like baseball writers from Ring Lardner on, Hays manages to make the national sport into a metaphor for the American way of life.
Four of the nominees will receive $1,000. The winner, whose name will be announced at the May 11 awards ceremony at the Folger Shakespeare Library, will receive $5,000.