Big night in the Big Apple, where they'll be announcing this year's winners of the National Book Awards. I've read all five finalists for fiction and obtained first printings of each (though not without some difficulty with American Salvage, of which only 1,000 copies were produced in the limited first run).
Overall, I wasn't blown away by this year's final five. A vintage year it's not, and certainly nothing that rivals '52 (The Catcher in the Rye, Lie Down in Darkness, The Caine Mutiny, From Here to Eternity, et. al.) I'm not big on short story collections and wish they would stick to novels only for the fiction award. That said, the two short story books on the list of finalists -- American Salvage and In Other Rooms, Other Wonders -- were better than most. The author of the former, Bonnie Jo Campbell, is a new face on the scene with a fascinating background. Not only does she hold advanced degrees in creative writing and mathematics, but once worked for Ringling Brothers selling snow cones and drives a '85 Chevy pick-up with a rebuilt engine. For more, check out her website. I don't, however, think she has a snow cone's chance in hell of taking home the bacon.
That's because the three novels, with the possible exception of Marcel Theroux's post-apocalyptic Far North, are heads above their short story counterparts for the award. Theroux, by the way, is the son of Paul Theroux (The Mosquito Coast), making them the first father-son combination to land on the finalists list for fiction. Marcel's ending is so rushed and unfulfilling, though, that I felt as if I was reading an in-class assignment in which the student discovers too late that he's reached his word limit before the conclusion has been written.
Which brings us to the other two novels: Lark & Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. Lark is the story of a non-nuclear, genetic checkerboard of a West Virginia clan whose central character is a mentally challenged boy (Termite). Spin is a blending of stories connected in thin strands to a single event, Philippe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the World Trade Center buildings. Of the two, Spin is the richer and more powerful novel, making it my favorite to win this year's title.
I've accurately predicted four of the past five winners, scoring with The News from Paraguay (2004), Europe Central ('05), Tree of Smoke ('07) and Shadow Country ('08) but missing in '06 with The Echo Maker.
With that in mind, here are the odds I've assigned to the five finalists:
Let the Great World Spin -- 8-5
Lark & Termite -- 3-1
American Salvage -- 15-1
Far North -- 20-1
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders -- 20-1