"The Accidental Tourist," Anne Tyler's novel about a reclusive Baltimorean who wobbles back to life after losing his family, won the 11th annual National Book Critics Circle award for fiction yesterday.
"Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families," J. Anthony Lukas' study of the effects of public school desegregation on three Boston families, took the general nonfiction prize. "The Triumph of Achilles," by Louise Gluck, won the prize for poetry and William Gass' "Habitations of the Word" was honored for criticism. "Henry James: A Life" by Leon Edel won in the biography/ autobiography category.
Sven Birkerts, a free-lance critic and Harvard writing teacher, won the Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.
The National Book Critics Circle is composed of 500 book reviewers and newspaper critics nationwide. Twenty members of the circle's governing board met yesterday for what one critic called "argufying" and balloting at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan.
The book critics award brings no financial reward, but it is considered, along with the Pulitzer Prizes and the American Book Awards, to be among the most prestigious American literary prizes.
This year, the voting for the poetry and fiction awards was the most contentious. One member described the poetry balloting as a "flat-out fight" between fans of the Gluck collection and those partial to Amy Clampitt's "What the Light Was Like." At the height of the balloting, partisans declaimed poems at one another across the table.
In fiction, Tyler's novel narrowly edged out Peter Taylor's "The Old Forest and Other Stories," a collection that spans 40 years of his work. Feelings ran high for both Tyler and Taylor, according to one critic who was present, but Tyler, an early favorite, "pulled ahead in the end."
"The Accidental Tourist," Tyler's 10th novel, concerns the salvation of a grieving guidebook writer who, deserted by his wife after the death of their teen-age son, fears he is about to become "some hopeless wreck of a man wandering drugged on a downtown street." He is rescued despite himself by a romantic-minded dog trainer named Muriel.
"Then he knew that . . . although he did not love her he loved the surprise of her, and also the surprise of himself when he was with her. In the foreign country that was Singleton Street, he was an entirely different person. This person had never been suspected of narrowness, never been accused of chilliness; in fact, was mocked for his soft heart."
Tyler, reached at her home yesterday in Baltimore, said, "It means a great deal to me. I've never won an award before."
Tyler said she was sorry to learn that the award had pitted her novel against Taylor's short stories. "It's almost a situation where you wish the other fellow could have won. I think a great deal of Peter Taylor's work."
In biography/autobiography, Leon Edel swept all votes, although there was some debate about whether his condensation of an earlier five-volume study of Henry James contained enough new material to be considered. Edel rewrote two chapters and says he allowed himself to speak more openly about James' private life and the homoerotic undercurrents in Victorian society. One critic speculated that the Edel award was a result of less than a banner year in biography.
This year's nominations for criticism also were thought "rather weak," according to a circle member. William Gass, a writer whose richly rhetorical style and avant-garde preference for words over plot has won him acclaim as well as scorn, won on the first ballot for his essays on such subjects as Emerson, Ford Madox Ford and the state of soliloquy.
Nominees for the National Book Critics Circle awards:
For Fiction: "The Accidental Tourist" (Knopf); "White Noise," by Don DeLillo (Viking); "Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance," by Richard Powers (Beech Tree/Morrow); "The Old Forest and Other Stories" (Doubleday); and "Lonesome Dove" by Larry McMurtry (Simon and Schuster).
General Nonfiction: "Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families" (Knopf); "House," by Tracy Kidder (Houghton Mifflin); "The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World," by Elaine Scarry (Oxford); "Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens," by Eva C. Keuls (Harper & Row).
Autobiography/biography: "Henry James: A Life" (Harper & Row); "Louise Bogan: A Portrait" by Elizabeth Frank (Knopf); "Giacometti: A Biography" by James Lord (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); "Brigham Young: American Moses," by Leonard J. Arrington (Knopf); and "Visible Light: Four Creative Biographies" by Michael Lesy (Times Books).
Poetry: "The Triumph of Achilles" (Ecco Press); "Late Settings" by James Merrill (Atheneum); "What the Light Was Like" (Knopf); "The Lamplit Answer," by Gjertrud Schnackenberg (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); and "The Past," by Galway Kinnell (Houghton Mifflin).
Criticism: "Habitations of the Word" (Simon and Schuster); "Opera and Ideas: From Mozart to Strauss" by Paul Robinson (Harper & Row); "Pierrots on the Stage of Desire: Nineteenth-Century French Literary Artists and the Comic Pantomime" by Robert Storey (Princeton); "Hard Facts: Setting and Form in the American Novel," by Philip Fisher (Oxford); and "Occasional Prose: Essays," by Mary McCarthy (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich).