Bookmakers

by Paul Hond
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“We look for literary excellence, originality, and intellectual substance,” Banks says, the “we” being the board’s twenty-five members, who read the thirty finalists — five books apiece in the six categories — and discuss, debate, and vote. “A book should be worth the time it takes to read it. The finalists are books that are worth the time.”

After the winners gave their speeches, each a gem of grace and humor, the festivities moved to a New School hall on West 13th Street. There, guests filled plates with meatballs, broccoli florets, hummus, and pita crisps. At the bar, beer and wine trailed behind bourbon. Banks was in meet-and-greet mode among the milling editors and writers, many of whom figured into the NBCC’s six-hundred-strong membership. Nearby, NBCC vice president Steven Kellman, a critic and University of Texas professor dressed in chestnut tweed, talked to writer Jay Neugeboren ’59CC, well-groomed in a red shirt and checked blazer and about to publish his nineteenth book. Parul Sehgal ’10SOA, winner of last year’s NBCC Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, in a black dress that matched her long hair, chatted with Craig Morgan Teicher ’05SOA, a brown-maned bard in a pale buttoned shirt who is chair of the NBCC poetry committee. And there, moving fluidly through the room, her glimpsed face reminiscent of one of those fair and regal film actresses who play Queen Elizabeth, was Jennifer Egan, whose novel A Visit from the Goon Squad won the 2011 NBCC Award for fiction and the Pulitzer Prize. Over in a corner, James Marcus ’84SOA, the deputy editor of Harper’s, was heard to say, “You learn how to write a book and not write a book at the same time.” No one disagreed.

Meanwhile, Banks, who has written about racetrack life for the New York Times, Slate, and the Guardian, was discussing his side interest with a man from the neighborhood.

“When people talk about literature and sports, it’s usually baseball, but horseracing has a very rich literature,” Banks said, and tossed off names like flinging flowers off a bridge: William Nack’s Big Red of Meadow Stable, Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule, Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven, Joe H. Palmer’s This Was Racing, W. C. Heinz’s article “Death of a Racehorse.”

Death. The neighbor, holding a salmon-on-pumpernickel finger sandwich, said to Banks, “As a young boy, you must have been traumatized when they shot Ruffian.”

“They didn’t shoot her,” Banks said.

“They didn’t?”

“They don’t shoot horses anymore.”

“They don’t?”

“No, they stopped doing that back in the 1940s and ’50s. Now they use an injection containing barbiturates.”

We’d like to go on, but it seems we’re in the homestretch; the finish line approaches, and so we must leave Banks to his marathon and announce the 2012 NBCC winners: for criticism, Geoff Dyer (Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews); for poetry, Laura Kasischke (Space, in Chains); for biography, John Lewis Gaddis (George F. Kennan: An American Life); for autobiography, Mira Bartók (The Memory Palace); for nonfiction, Maya Jasanoff (Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World). In the evening’s most talked-about contest, the fiction prize went to Boston writer Edith Pearlman for Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories.

Pearlman, who has received little recognition until now (she was also a finalist for the National Book Award), is seventy-five years old, reminding us, as the Good Book says: the race is not always to the swift.

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