Anthony J. Lukas won the American Book Award last night in the nonfiction category for his book about the Boston busing crisis, "Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families."
Don DeLillo won the fiction award for his novel "White Noise," and Bob Shacochis won the award for best first work for his collection of short stories set in the Caribbean, "Easy in the Islands."
Lukas, DeLillo and Shacochis will receive $10,000 each. The money comes from $100 fees publishers pay to enter books for consideration by the three judging panels. Runners-up won $1,000 awards donated by Simon & Schuster.
According to sources at the judging in New York's Algonquin Hotel, Lukas' book was a quick choice ahead of the other nominations in nonfiction, Daniel Kevles' "In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity" and Walter McDougall's "Heavens & the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age."
Reviewer Robert Coles, writing for The Washington Post, said that Lukas' look at the way families, politicians, courts and religious groups reacted to the turmoil over school integration in Boston "belongs in the tradition of literary-documentary study -- the kind of work James Agee did upon returning from his stint in rural Alabama in the 1930s, or Orwell did when he wrote of his experiences among England's coal miners in that same decade."
While a reporter for The New York Times, Lukas won the Pulitzer Prize for stories about the generation gap in the late 1960s, and he was widely praised for his history of Watergate, "Nightmare."
The judges argued long about the other two categories. The fiction nominees were DeLillo, Ursula K. Le Guin for "Always Coming Home" and Hugh Nissenson for "The Trees of Life," and the first-work nominees were Shacochis, Cecile Pineda for "Face" and Elizabeth Benedict for "Slow Dancing."
DeLillo's "White Noise" takes place at a midwestern school called College-on-the-Hill, where the professors have names like Alfonse (Fast Food) Stompanato and all the teachers "wear rumpled clothes, need haircuts, cough into their armpits."
Writing for The Post, critic Jonathan Yardley said that while "White Noise" is "arguably DeLillo's best novel" and distinguished by some "splendid" passages, it is ultimately "a trip to nowhere." Other reviewers were more impressed. In fact, DeLillo's earlier novels, including "The Names," "Running Dog" and "Great Jones Street," have been praised for years in some quarters.
Bob Shacochis' nine stories, including "Lord Short Shoe Wants the Monkey" and "Mundo's Sign," are charged with a love for the sea and the peculiar life on the Caribbean islands:
"The terms of life in the islands were that nothing ever made sense, unless you were a mystic or a politician, or studied both with ambition. Then every stupidness seemed an act of inspiration, every cruelty part of a divine scheme."