Five Novels Up for the NBCC Award

The National Book Critics Circle will announce its awards at a ceremony in New York next Thursday night, and I've been eying their great shortlist of fiction finalists, trying to figure the odds. Compared to the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, the NBCC has far and away the largest group of judges: All 24 board members hammer out the list of winners on the afternoon before the ceremony, and it can be a fairly grueling process of voting and revoting and eliminating and revoting ... I'm sure some game theorists have studied this phenomenon, but it seemed to me during my tenure on the board (2002-5) that books which inspired very strong feelings were easy to get on the shortlist but very hard to push into the winner's circle. Again and again, we'd compromise, split the difference, and some book none of us really hated would be crowned.

Roberto Bolano, the late Chilean writer, is the William Vollmann of this year's list. (In 2003, one of the judges insisted on nominating Vollmann's monumental study of violence, "Rising Up and Rising Down," which weighed in at 3,300-pages. How many of the judges really read it?) Bolano's 900-page "2666" (FSG) -- originally intended as five separate books -- isn't quite as daunting, but it's still a work-out. Board member Marcela Valdes is something of an expert on Bolano and wrote a marvelous long review for the Nation. I suspect she'll be a persuasive advocate.

"The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart," by first-time novelist M. Glenn Taylor, an English teacher at Harper College in Chicago, has all the hallmarks of being the personal crusade of one or two board members. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Literary history is sometimes made by such longshots. There have been very few reviews, but one of them, in the Houston Chronicle, was a rave written by NBCC board member Eric Miles Williamson. This paperback original about a union sniper in Appalachia was picked by Barnes & Noble for their "Great New Writers" promotion, but it's sold fewer than 3,000 copies since it was released by West Virginia Univ. Press in June.

Marilynne Robinson's "Home" (FSG), which was also a finalist for the National Book Award, is a beautiful book by one of the nation's most talented, celebrated authors, but it seems overshadowed by its companion novel, "Gilead," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004. I suspect the judges will find this new novel too still, too contemplative to call it the winner. (It's sold 50,000 copies, remarkable considering the novel's deliberate pace and theological concerns.)

Elizabeth Strout's "Olive Kittredge" (Random House) is another case in which the author's previous book, the bestselling "Abide With Me" (2007), was so stunning that it seems almost anticlimactic to recognize her latest, less spectacular novel, a collection of 13 linked stories. It sold slowly in hardback (12,000), but about three times that number in paperback, probably driven by strong interest from women readers who have loved her since her debut "Amy & Isabelle" came out in 1998.

Genius grant-winner Aleksandar Hemon's "The Lazarus Project" (Riverhead) was also a finalist for the National Book Award, Amazon chose it as one of its Top Ten for 2008, and New York Magazine said it was their favorite novel of the year. (Despite all that praise, the book has sold a tepid 13,000 copies.) If "Lazarus" had won the NBA, I'd expect the NBCC judges to pass -- every literary prize likes to trumpet something different -- but now the judges might want to push it over the finish line. Hemon was an NBCC finalist in 2002 for "Nowhere Man," and he has a fascinating backstory (born in Sarajevo, he didn't write a story in English till 1995). This may be his year. (His new collection of short stories, "Love and Obstacles," comes out in May.)

I'll be at the ceremony next week in New York, so look for updates here.

-- Ron Charles

By Ron Charles |  March 4, 2009; 5:08 AM ET Fiction , Ron Charles
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