A long time waking up this cold morning, which might have something to do with the big night behind us, the much bigger night ahead. I’ve been to several National Book Awards ceremonies in the past. I’ve always had a great time, always enjoyed the fizz and hoo-ha of it. One year we sat with Steve Martin who glowed pinkly and kindly across the table. Another year I saw Edie Falco, whom I almost talked to but didn’t. Just about everyone in publishing is there. And it’s always high spirited and fun, everyone in tuxes and gowns, people happy to make contact. And all at once I’m remembering my old pal Lucy Grealy at the reception not too many years back, and the two of us throwing our arms around each other, as if to say, how the hell did we ever end up in this life?
Obviously, the situation’s a lot different when your beloved is a finalist. At the reception last night it occurred to me that we were doing that old thing couples do: if X is stressed out, Y isn’t. Only one at a time. X bearing the stress for Y? Not as simple as that, as the roles could shift at any minute. To illustrate, I nearly tripped into the reception while Mark breezed forward into the room. Not two seconds later I choked on a not-entirely-dissolved Altoid as I shook hands with Famous Critic. I ran into a friend of mine and he told me that he and his girlfriend are prone to the same thing, even as they laugh about it and know it’s lunacy. It occurred to me that my theory might be the hidden story behind "Heaven for Paul,” Mark’s poem about our near plane crash over Ohio. Why else was I the calm recipient of saintly vision while Mark nearly lost it?
Anyway, we both forgot about all that upon seeing our dear friends Michael and Luis, who looked exceedingly dapper and handsome. My two editors were there, Jon Rabinowitz and Fiona McCrae, and many hugs were exchanged.
I think I have to second Mark’s view that the poets were the stars of the reading, though I am no impartial observer. Frank Bidart, Reginald Gibbons, Richard Howard, and Patricia Smith gave impeccably poised readings, human and nuanced. And Mark probably gave the best reading of “House of Beauty” I’ve ever heard.
But I don’t mean to slight any of the prose writers. I’d venture to say fiction finalist Salvatore Scibona is no less a poet than any of the names mentioned above. I’ve been a fan of Salvatore’s work for at least ten years now, and it's wonderful to see his novel The End getting its do. Here’s a short excerpt.
He was five feet one inch tall in street shoes, bearlike in his round and jowly face, hulking in his chest and shoulders, nearly just as stout around the middle, but hollow in the hips, and lacking a proper can to sit on (though he was hardly ever known to sit), and wee at the ankles, and girlish at his tiny feet, a man in the shape of a lightbulb. He was faintly green-skinned, psoriatic about the elbows and the backs of knees, his shaven cheeks untouched by scars of any sort, faithful to a fault to his daily labors, grudgeless against the wicked world, thankful for it, even; a baker of breads with and without seeds, modest cakes, seasonal frosted treats; supplier to all neighborhoods and occasional passers-through; a reader of the p.m. papers, as all of his vocation are, born on the feast of Saint Lucy, 1895; a prideful Ohioan; a sucker of caramel candies when cigarettes he forbade himself from eight o’clock to two; possessor of a broad and seamless brow and a head of sleek black undulant hair, the eyes goonish, unnaturally pale and blue, set deep in the skull in swollen rain-clouded pouches, the eyes of one poisoned with lead, who had not in all his days addressed a piece of speech to more than two persons at once; a looker-right-through-you if he pleased, as old cats look, accustomed to suffering the company of others but always in need of privacy; the baker of Elephant Park; an unambitious businessman; a soul liberated from worry by luck and self-conquest; a weakhearted sparer of the rod with his boys; a measured drinker of spirits who prayed daily for the salvation of his sons and wife; a smoker nevertheless immune to colds and grippes; an ignorer of the weather; a lover of streaks, content and merciful; an unremarkable Christian.