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National Book Award 2012: Colum McCan, Jesmyn Ward and Five Years of Fiction Winners

It’s the same award that was won by John Updike and Philip Roth, but for some meaningful revisions: this year's National Book Awards will look more like an actual award show and less like a literary gathering. The carpet will be redder, the stage brighter and the nominees — including Junot Diaz, Louise Erdrich and Dave Eggers — enter with bigger names.

The change started with a not-so-subtle directive from the National Book Foundation that freed this year’s judges to nominate books by writers who are widely read: an award once-signaling arrival may now go to both the arriving and the already arrived.

Combined with the cosmetic changes, a fresh buzz has generated over Wednesday’s event. Yet, it’s also brought a kind of nostalgia for the way things were, an intersection almost literary in nature — where a longing for the past while looking to the future can make sense.

In that tradition, while the countdown to Wednesday's announcements goes on, here’s a look back at what the National Book Award has meant for the last five winners in fiction:



Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones, 2011 winner



To describe Salvage The Bones as set in fictional Bois Sauvage, a predominantly black community in the storm’s path, is to be too simplistic. Ward’s second novel makes its home in that space where beauty and something deeper than pain intertwine.

In 12 days wrapped around Hurricane Katrina, Ward introduces Esch: a 15-year-old without a mom and on the verge of becoming one herself. She explores the ties that bind families, how they stretch but don’t break.

Ward, who received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, drew from her family’s experience as victims of Katrina. She’s often expressed a determination to make sure the storm isn’t forgotten.

Ward has written a forthcoming memoir, The Men We Reaped, and will return a third time to Bois Sauvage with an in-progress novel about an interracial couple.


Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule, 2010 winner



Lord of Misrule is an example of the kind of book that might have a tougher time getting the collective notice of the judges beginning in 2012 and beyond. The book’s win came as a surprise even to Gordon, who formerly taught writing at Western Michigan University.

Published by McPherson & Company, a small shop in Kingston, New York, Gordon wore an old dress to the 2010 ceremony and didn’t prepare any remarks. Lord of Misrule was a longshot’s longshot, particularly befitting (almost too easily) a book that spans a year-and-a-half and four races at Indian Mound Downs, a fictional track in West Virginia.

Gordon currently teaches at the Prague Program for Summer Writers.


Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin, 2009 winner



Readers of literary fiction had made McCann’s acquaintance years before Let the Great World Spin brought back to life the Twin Towers and reimagined Philippe Petit, a French acrobat who crossed between the skyward pair on a tightrope in 1974.

The towers simultaneously center the novel and serve as its backdrop, twin metaphors in their present-day absence, for the polar-opposite sensations of love and loss. In an array of voices, McCann walks in Spin a tightrope of his own design, seamlessly connecting characters that included a liberation theologian from Dublin, a Bronx prostitute and a Park Avenue housewife fighting through grief. The book takes place mostly in 1970s New York, where the shadow of Nixon and Vietnam loom as large as the towers themselves.

McCan is a Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing in the Master of Fine Arts program at Hunter College. McCann’s Transatlantic is due out in late 2013, to great anticipation.


Peter Matthiessen, Shadow Country, 2008 winner



The three-time book award winner earned his most recent nod in 2008 with Shadow Country, made up of three separate Matthiessen novels revised and fit together.

Edgar Watson, one of the last frontiersman of the 20th century and a presumed murderer, was a character Matthiessen saw through three 1990s novels that make up Shadow County Killing Mister Watson (1990), Lost Man's River (1997), and Bone by Bone (1999). This award-winning, 892-page epic is broken up as Book I, Book II and Book III.

Matthiessen previously won the National Book Award in the Contemporary Thought category for a work of nonfiction titled The Snow Leopard (1979) and in General Nonfiction for the same title a year later.

He is 85 years old.


Denis Johnson, The Tree of Smoke, 2007 winner



The Tree of Smoke winner is recognizable as much for the award he won as for the one he didn’t: Johnson was among the nominees for the unawarded 2012 Pulitzer Prize, the 11th time the prize went without a winner and the first since 1977.

Tree of Smoke is a far-reaching, 600-page account of the Vietnam War. It opens with a striking first line, immediately transporting readers to the author’s chosen time and place: “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed.” CIA operatives, soldiers and a Seventh Day Adventist, among others, make up Johnson’s guides through the protracted war.

Born in West Germany, Johnson has produced nonfiction works, a short-story collection and plays performed on stage in New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

His latest novel, Train Dreams, was a finalist for the Pulitzer along with Karen Russell’s Swamplandia and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. Johnson’s 1992 collection, Jesus’ Son, tales of drug addiction, crime and murder told by an unnamed narrator, was later adapted into a movie in which Johnson himself appeared.

For a full list of this year's nominees click here.

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