Smell of Steve, Inc.

In 1998, Stranger contributor Paul Bravmann went to the National Book Awards Dinner and, as soon as the meal was over, filed the following report. —Eds.

It’s almost midnight. The 49th National Book Awards have been presented, the shindig has been dug, and I’ve rushed home, clutching my oversized program by its gold silk cord to give you a full report. Herein find details which, though they may tarnish your idea of the so-called “Literary Oscars” (words that appeared at the top of a press release—can you believe it?), will, when assembled, reveal the awards for what they truly are: a piece of tragicomic dinner theater, in which the American Book suffers for sins of pride committed by its authors and its pimps. Let me put these details down before they evanesce like liquor vapor off the hosted bar….

By 7:00 p.m. the sixth-floor foyer of New York City’s Marriott Marquis was wall-to-wall tuxedos and designer dresses, many of which revealed the prosaic backs of publishing industry mavens. I felt like a slob in my thrift-store blazer and open collar, so I stood half-hidden behind a pillar at the scene’s periphery. After 10 minutes of pointless loitering, I spotted Harold (Western Canon) Bloom, whose Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, which the judges cited as “exacting and entertaining, infuriating and compelling,” was one of this year’s finalists. Bloom shambled past me, as graceful as a haystack, his jowls trembling slightly with each step. His hair, a fine gray froth, was caught by a draft and lifted off his dappled skull. His bow tie was askew. After observing Bloom, a man who manages to make a well-cut tux look dowdy, I felt free to circulate.

While trawling for hors d’oeuvres, I eavesdropped on a small press editor with dandruff-sprinkled shoulders as he struggled to expectorate a few compelling words about “integrity.” The Rolex-wearing guy he was addressing laughed a deep-pocketed laugh, a laugh he tried to muffle with a chunk of poached swordfish in aspic on a round of Melba toast. The editor fell silent and nibbled at his bite-sized spinach quiche.

Not long after this, the foyer bars stopped serving, and the trays of ravaged canapés were whisked away. A caterer in a Kelly green sports jacket weaved morosely through the thinning crowd, playing a four-keyed xylophone with a rubber mallet. His minimalist improvisations, which nodded in the direction of the military favorite “Taps,” were one of the artistic high points of the evening—at least that’s what I was thinking to myself when someone nudged me. It was Beth, a friend of a friend of a pretty close friend, and fiction editor of a major New York magazine. Beth looked bored and stylish in a blue silk sheath that showed no back at all. She set me straight about the enigmatic music, a signal that the main event was getting underway.

We followed the prevailing current through the Broadway Ballroom’s yawning double doors, then detoured up a narrow staircase to the balcony, where 50-some-odd journalists were fighting over seats with unobstructed stage views and positions in a buffet line for tuna salad, dinner rolls, and seedless grapes. We were like school kids banished to the kitchen while the big people’s party rages in the living room. The balcony was hemmed in by a Plexiglas sneeze shield, which we pressed our noses up against and smudged with fingerprints. We couldn’t help ourselves.

“I’m very happy to be back as the Billy Crystal of letters,” rasped playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who was obviously chosen as M.C. for her skill at delivering jokes based on parallels between the book and movie industries, then filling the resulting vacuum with her own asthmatic chuckle. Wasserstein stood at a Lucite podium; to her right hung a giant-screen TV flanked by Tuscan columns with fall leaves scattered at their bases, backed by a curtain of Chianti-colored velvet. When the names of finalists were mentioned, a roving camera jockey aimed his zoom lens at the crowd for a close-up, just like at the Oscars. But unlike his Oscar-filming counterparts—who get a week of practice shooting cardboard cutouts of Tom Hanks, et al.—this guy almost never hit his mark. The giant screen was mostly filled with nauseating blur.

John Updike, on hand to receive $10,000 and a medal for Distinguished Contribution, sat on the riser with his clasped hands thrust between his knees, squeezing. He looked beakish and impatient as Wasserstein informed the assemblage of that which they were to celebrate: “the loneliness, the insanity, the magnificence of persistence, the tremendous self-absorption and generosity of one person who sits alone in his or her room and creates.” When Updike took the podium, he refocused the crowd’s attention by peering, pausing, then announcing, “Tuxedos, sequins, plunging necklines—I must be in Hollywood,” and comparing the “gala air of ritual sacrifice” to that of the Academy Awards.

Updike also read form a superb account of his very first National Book Awards experience, back in 1964, when he bagged a prize for his first novel, The Centaur. The account was written by none other than Tom Wolfe, who was then working as a freelance journalist. This seemed a strange choice of material, since a couple of days before tonight’s proceedings, Updike had published a piece in The New Yorker describing Wolfe’s latest, A Man in Full, this year’s favored fiction finalist, as “entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form.” Wolfe, perhaps responding to premonitions of defeat, was conspicuously absent from the ceremony, and rumored to be at a party in Atlanta. As Updike left the podium, he dropped the pages of his speech. He chased them, but they fluttered away like a special effect.

Dinner was served. Beth and I leaned cautiously over the rail and studied the pretty tables below, with their arrangements of white roses, flickering oil lamps, and Stonehenge-looking piles of nominated hardbacks, and tried to figure out what the adults were eating. Then dinner was over, and it was time to present awards to books (almost an afterthought, it seemed), over the napkin belches of the fully fed.

Wolfe lost, as I mentioned, squeezed out by a Washingtonian named Alice McDermott, the author of Charming Billy, a liquor-soaked novel of Irish-American angst which, according to the panel, “had a voice like nothing we could recall.” Accepting the award, McDermott proclaimed, “I wouldn’t be true to my Irish heritage if I thought this were entirely a good thing,” words which echoed like a cry of utmost sanity. (At the press conference an hour later, McDermott told reporters that she was signing her $10,000 dollar check over to her son so he could ski in Vail.) Poetry award recipient Gerald Stern made disgusting snuffling noises into the microphone, and assured us that his volume of new and selected poems This Time had been optioned for a film. And I’m not sure who won in the Young People’s Literature category, because when the results went over the PA, Beth and I were hunting down a corkscrew to open a bottle of Chablis she’d hijacked.

I was, however, present for the nonfiction award, won by Edward Ball, whose Slaves in the Family is the author’s overwrought attempt to come to terms with his grandparents’ slave-owning past. Ball’s memorized speech was delivered through bloodless lips in aristocratic tones. After offering bland thanks to his publisher and fiancée, Ball announced his intentions to set aside a quarter of his income from book sales to create restitution programs “run in collaboration between black folks and white… in some attempt to answer for the legacy of slavery.” He might as well have had the words “publicity stunt” scrawled across his starched shirt in Magic Marker.

A few words regarding the National Book Award itself, its physical construction. Forget the burnished statuette of Oscar: what you’ve got here is a jagged 12-inch slab of engraved crystal attached to an easy-grip base—the perfect object with which to open up a vein if, in a moment of clarity, a winning author were to realize that, as William Gass once wrote, “Any award-giving outfit… is doomed… to pass the masters by in silence and applaud the apprentices, the mimics, the hacks, or to honor one of those agile surfers who ride every fresh wave.”