A history professor from Ohio beat the collective efforts of 10 investigative commissioners and some 80 Washington wonks to win the National Book Award for nonfiction Wednesday night.
"Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age," an account of the struggles of an African American in Detroit in the 1920s, took the trophy, disappointing the many who had contributed to and orchestrated the publishing industry's surprise bestseller of the year, the 9/11 Commission Report.
"Arc of Justice" author Kevin Boyle seemed awed by the triumph of his book, about the efforts of a man named Ossian Sweet to integrate a white neighborhood. He expounded on the unfinished work of integrating American cities.
"Eighty years on, the system of segregation that Dr. Ossian Sweet confronted is still in place," Boyle said, "including in this extraordinary city that we're in at the moment."
He offered tribute to his rivals in the nonfiction category. "I still shake my head to think that my book could be considered in the extraordinary company of the other nominees."
"The News From Paraguay," by Lily Tuck, won the evening's most controversial category, fiction. The award typically has gone to breakout authors or writers who have put together a lifetime of critically acclaimed work. But this year the fiction jury went another way. All five finalists were plucked from the same narrow demographic -- all were women, all New Yorkers, all unknown beyond the literati and only one had sold more then 2,000 copies of her book. This provoked plenty of spluttering in the few remaining corners of the world that splutter about this sort of thing.
Before announcing Tuck's victory, author Rick Moody, who had led the fiction jury, defended the choices. To him, "Paraguay" and the other four books -- "Our Kind" by Kate Walbert, "Ideas of Heaven" by Joan Silber, "Florida" by Christine Schutt and "Madeleine Is Sleeping" by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum -- were the standouts of more than 272 works that the panel read.
"We believe that excellence is twofold," Moody told the audience of 700 at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. "It inheres in language and it inheres in imagination." The finalists were engaged, he added, in "writing that extends the life of the American tongue."
Tuck addressed the contretemps glancingly in her brief speech. "Thank you, thank you," she sighed. "I want to acknowledge my fellow unknown finalists. I want to say how much I admire their work."
"Godless" by Peter Hautman won the prize for young people's literature. The judges said that Hautman had created a new Holden Caulfield with a story about a boy who creates his own religion, one that worships his town's water tower and quickly wins local acolytes.
"Those of us who write for young people do a lot of memory work," Hautman said in his speech, about why the books they loved as kids "mattered and by what strange logic and emotions we did the peculiar things we did."
"Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003" by Jean Valentine, a teacher at Sarah Lawrence College and author of eight previous books, won the poetry award. "It's a work of remarkable depth. It is a work of manifest integrity," the judges wrote in their citation. She beat "Goest" author Cole Swensen, Carl Phillips ("The Rest of Love"), Donald Justice ("Collected Poems") and William Heyen ("Shoah Train"). We include their names here because, well, there's a good chance you'll never read them anywhere else.
The ceremony is the book industry's version of the Oscars, a black-tie event in a room large enough to park a blimp. A seat cost $1,000 -- it's a fundraiser for the National Book Foundation as much as a prizefest -- and most of the seats are bought by publishers. To anyone accustomed to the noise and pace of a televised awards show, such as the Grammys, this one seemed to unfold with a relative solemnity. There was faint background music as the winners made their way to the podium, but it somehow felt like silence.
It doesn't help that publishers and authors are these days a stressed-out bunch, apparently. The evening's theme, if it could be said to have a theme, was the alarming irrelevance of literature. The doomiest note was sounded early by host Garrison Keillor, who managed to make the whole problem sound funny.
"Most books that are sold in America are not read, and we know this. It's one of the secrets of our business. One of the nasty secrets," he said, during his opening remarks. "Books are totems, they're tokens. We give Uncle Walt a copy of 'Moby-Dick' as a way of saying we think he could read it."
There were a few shouts when the winners were announced, by family and partisans, but a stunned silence seemed to greet Boyle, the nonfiction winner. Everyone here was ready to embrace a different story line: a boring-seeming government report lands on the bestseller list and stays there for weeks, to the collective amazement of everyone. Then it wins the National Book Award, making it a critical success, too.
But it was not to be; 9/11 commission member Jamie Gorelick said before the ceremony that she would not use the $10,000 that goes with the prize for a tequila-soaked party. ("Is that the best question you have?" she asked.) Now she couldn't even if she wanted to.
Then again, she won't have to contend with transporting home the hefty trophy that comes with winning. Early in the night, Keillor made it sound downright menacing, the sort of thing you might have a hard time getting through security at La Guardia.
"It weighs about as much as a bowling ball," he said. "A lot of these prizes are little Lucite things, little plastic things. But if you hit somebody with one of these, they'll go down and stay down for a long time."