The National Book Critics Circle Award for the best nonfiction book of 1989 yesterday went to "The Broken Cord," Michael Dorris's compelling exploration of fetal alcohol syndrome, the disease that cripples his adopted son, and of the grim perils of alcohol consumption to all pregnant women.
The board of the professional book critics' organization, meeting for more than five hours in New York yesterday, also selected "Billy Bathgate," E. L. Doctorow's coming-of-age novel, as last year's best work of fiction; "A First-Class Temperament," Geoffrey C. Ward's book about the early career of Franklin Roosevelt, as the best biography; and "Transparent Gestures," a collection by Rodney Jones, as the best volume of poetry.
Acclaimed biographer John Clive, who died in January the day before the NBCC nominations were announced, will be awarded the criticism prize posthumously for his collection "Not by Fact Alone: Essays on the Writing and Reading of History."
Dorris's book was selected by the critics in an unusually strong -- and characteristically eclectic -- field of nonfiction nominees: Tracy Kidder's best-selling "Among Schoolchildren," David Fromkin's "A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East 1914-1922," Barbara Ehrenreich's "Fear of Flying: The Inner Life of the Middle Class" and Amy Wilentz's "The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier."
The Fromkin book, a source at the meeting said, came the closest in the voting to the "The Broken Cord."
Dorris, a part-Modoc Indian who teaches anthropology at Dartmouth, has become active in efforts to fight alcohol abuse among pregnant women. The effects of fetal alcohol syndrome are prevalent in depressed Indian communities, according to Dorris, but they reach into comfortable middle-class precincts too, where a glass of wine a day is still considered a permissible habit during pregnancy.
Of "The Broken Cord" and its wrenching story of Dorris's son, Phyllis Theroux wrote in The Washington Post: "By the time Dorris has created a crevasse in our hearts with his personal tale of Adam, we are helpless to withstand what comes next -- a series of expertly aimed blows at our collective consciousness and conscience... ."
Dorris, the author also of one novel, is married to novelist Louise Erdrich, whose "Love Medicine" won the NBCC award for fiction in 1985. The two writers, who have five other children, adopted and biological, collaborate closely on all their books.
Doctorow, who won the NBCC first fiction award in 1976 for "Ragtime," was the only fully established author competing in the field. Amy Tan's runaway success of a first novel, "The Joy Luck Club," gave "Billy Bathgate" its stiffest competition, the source said. The other nominees were John Casey, whose "Spartina" recently won the National Book Award in fiction; Oscar Hijuelos, for "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love"; and Jane Smiley, for her two novellas "Ordinary Love and Good Will."
Deliberations over the biography/autobiography award were said to have narrowed quickly to Ward's FDR biography -- the second volume in a series by the former editor of American Heritage -- and Tobias Wolff's memoir, "This Boy's Life," the only autobiography nominated in the tandem field. The other nominees were Roger Morris's first volume of a Richard Nixon biography, Otto Friedrich's portrait of musician Glenn Gould, and Bill Gilbert's "And God Gave Us This Country: Tekamthi and the First American Civil War."
Alone among the categories yesterday, poetry required little debate among the 20 judges. "Transparent Gestures," a collection of poems steeped in the Southern black experience, is Jones's third collection. The other books nominated were "Water Walker," by Nancy Willard; "Pyramid of Bone," by Thylias Moss; "Earthquake Weather," by August Kleinzahler; and "Human Wishes," by Robert Hass.
The strongest contender against the Clive criticism collection, a source at the meeting said, was David Bromwich's "A Choice of Inheritance: Self and Community From Edmund Burke to Robert Frost." The other nominees were Cynthia Ozick, for "Metaphor and Memory," Charles Solomon, for "Enchanted Drawings," and William L. Vance, for "America's Rome."
The NBCC judges also chose, for their annual citation for excellence in book reviewing, freelance Carol Anshaw, a frequent contributor to the Village Voice literary supplement. At the awards ceremonies March 12, the NBCC board also will present its Ivan Sandrof award for contributions to American book publishing to James Laughlin, founding publisher of New Directions Books.