National Book Award: Is suspense a fiction? As yet unpublished, Wolfe's novel favored

October 16, 1998|By Michael Pakenham | Michael Pakenham,SUN BOOK EDITOR

If there has ever been a more intricate, elaborate and intentionally suspenseful run-up to a literary prize than that for the National Book Award for fiction this year, no one seems to remember it. Not in America, anyway; the Europeans are not like us.

The brouhaha is entirely about Tom Wolfe's novel "A Man in Full." It is merely one of five finalists for the National Book Award for fiction announced Wednesday, but the chattering classes of the U.S. literary scene have it way over the finish line already. The faux suspense brings touches of the Academy Awards and hints of a Miss America competition to the generally staid rituals of American high literary jurying.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the book's publisher, and the National Book Foundation, the nonprofit organization that administers the awards, each working for its natural interests, collaborated in the drama. It will be attenuated right up till 9: 30 p.m. Nov. 18, when, in an anxiety-drenched, ceremonial 49th annual National Book Awards dinner at New York's Marriott Marquis Hotel, the winner will be announced, along with winners for nonfiction, poetry and young people's literature.

Almost everyone who is in the know is betting that will be a successfully climactic event in the buildup for "A Man in Full." By the time of the dinner, FSG, in dramatic swiftness, will have distributed most of the 1.2 million first-print-order copies -- twice as many as were sold of Wolfe's last book, "Bonfire of the Vanities."

The participants will not talk money, but FSG is reported to have advanced Wolfe $5 million to $7 million. Rolling Stone magazine paid a reportedly unprecedented $150,000 for three excerpts, which ran in late summer. No movie deal has been negotiated.

At the awards dinner, as tradition demands, most of the nominees in all the categories will be on hand, in evening clothes, to get the bad or good news, in the ratio of four losers to one winner.

Wolfe will not be among them.

That evening, he will be giving a reading in the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta, where his novel is largely cast. That is a commitment he made, of course, well in advance -- though no one seems willing to discuss whether it was done intentionally to lend additional suspense and attention to the book awards gig. Historically, winners have not infrequently been absent from the ostensible command performance.

No one in lit-land was surprised by Wolfe's nomination, although -- as a major element of the great buildup -- the book has not been seen by anybody except the five fiction jurors, Wolfe's editors and a small handful of others involved in the publishing process.

The book is scheduled to arrive on book-shop shelves with theatrical fanfare Nov 12. Review copies are to be put in the hands of reviewers and other editors Wednesday. Though in final form it runs 734 pages, some writers inevitably will rush to publish assessments before the official publication.

Routinely, trade books such as this are sent to reviewers as long as three months before publication dates -- which are flexible estimates of delivery to the market. Most large-sale books more or less ooze into shops, as trucks lumber in from binderies and warehouses.

In keen contrast to that civilized pace, the five fiction jurors and Neil Baldwin, executive director of the National Book Foundation, got copies of loose proof pages, wrapped in rubber bands, a couple of days after Labor Day, on agreement of complete confidentiality.

It is not unusual to get early versions of contenders. National Book Foundation rules allow submission of anything from finished volumes to typed manuscripts, so long as the book is to be published between Dec. 1 of the previous year and Nov. 30 of the year of the award.

The quantity of reading and screening by the five jurors in each of the categories is immense. This year, 916 books were submitted by 197 publishers or imprints. Minor changes often are made in late-arriving manuscripts between the screening and final publication -- and minor editing changes were made in Wolfe's book, mainly Wolfe's meticulous rechecking of facts and details. The final award, Baldwin stressed, would be made on the basis of the full and complete book.

"Bonfire of the Vanities" was a sweeping novel about New York, but only as a setting, appropriately, for the most powerful social, economic and political forces at work in America in the middle 1980s. "A Man in Full" is set in Atlanta and promises to be as encompassing, though through a prism of the New South.

"Big men. Big money. Big games. Big libido. Big trouble," was a line describing the book in FSG's spring catalog. It involves an aging football hero and real-estate manipulator, Charlie Croker, who finds himself something like $100 million in debt.

Big stuff.

The title? A verse from an old Georgia folk song:

"Uncle Bud was a man in full/ He had a back like a Jersey bull/ He didn't like taters/ He didn't like pears/ He's got a gal that's got no hairs."

Yesterday, Baldwin, whose burden it is to oversee such things, said the menu for the Nov. 18 banquet will not be decided until Wednesday. Whether potatoes or pears would be chosen, he would not say.

The nominees

Fiction: Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full," Robert Stone's "Damascus Gate," Gayl Jones' "The Healing," Allegra Goodman's "Kaaterskill Falls" and Alice McDermott's "Charming

Billy."

Nonfiction: Edward Ball's "Slaves in the Family," Harold Bloom's "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human," Beth Kep-hart's "A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage," Yaffa Eliach's "There Once Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok" and Henry Mayer's "All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of American Slavery."

Poetry: B. H. Fairchild, Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Linda Pastan, Carl Phillips and Gerald Stern.

Young people's literature: Ann Cameron, Jack Gantos, Anita Lobel, Richard Peck and Louis Sachar.

Pub Date: 10/16/98

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