Johnson's `Tree of Smoke' wins National Book Award

Novel drawn from Vietnam War honored for fiction

November 15, 2007|By New York Times News Service.

Tree of Smoke, a sweeping novel by Denis Johnson about the Vietnam War that features intersecting stories of an array of American and Vietnamese soldiers and intelligence officers, won the National Book Award for fiction last night.

Johnson, whose book was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, was on assignment in Iraq. His wife, Cindy Lee Johnson, accepted the award. She read from a speech Johnson had prepared, in which he said he was "very sorry to miss this one chance to dress up in a tuxedo in front of so many representatives of the world of literature and say thank you."

In the nonfiction category, Tim Weiner, a reporter at The New York Times, took the prize for Legacy of Ashes: The History of the C.I.A. (Doubleday).

Weiner, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on national security programs, examined more than 50,000 documents and interviewed hundreds of CIA veterans for his book on CIA failures.

Accepting the award, Weiner said his work was "a testament to the power of the record revealed and maybe to the fact that our democracy, in spite of everything, is still open enough to see a glimpse of what we have wrought abroad."

In presenting the nonfiction prize, David Shields, the chairman of the judges' panel, hinted at a battle among the judges in selecting the winner: "We quarreled, we tussled, we cajoled, we tossed verbal brick-bats, we walked out, we walked back in."

Last night's ceremony marked the 58th year of the National Book Awards. Each of this year's winners received a bronze statue and $10,000.

The prize for young people's literature was awarded to Sherman Alexie for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown & Co.), an autobiographical story of a 14-year-old Spokane Indian who leaves his poverty-stricken reservation school and moves to a wealthy, all-white school.

Robert Hass, a former poet laureate, won the award for poetry for Time and Materials, Ecco/HarperCollins.

The National Book Foundation also awarded its Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Joan Didion. Didion, the essayist and novelist, won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2005 for The Year of Magical Thinking.

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