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Novel set in Vietnam War, CIA history win National Book Awards

Robert Hass (left); Cindy Johnson, who accepted an award for her husband, Denis Johnson; Sherman Alexie; and Tim Weiner at the 58th National Book Awards yesterday. Robert Hass (left); Cindy Johnson, who accepted an award for her husband, Denis Johnson; Sherman Alexie; and Tim Weiner at the 58th National Book Awards yesterday. (SETH WENIG/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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Associated Press / November 15, 2007

NEW YORK - Denis Johnson's "Tree of Smoke," a 600-page journey through the physical, moral, and spiritual extremes of the Vietnam War and its aftermath, won the National Book Award for fiction last night.

"I'm very sorry to miss this one chance to dress up in a tuxedo in front of so many representatives in the world of literature, and say thank you to the people who have given me my life," the author said in a statement read by his wife, Cindy.

The 58-year-old Johnson, who lives in New Mexico, rarely talks to the media and is currently writing on assignment in Iraq. It was the fifth time in the past eight years that an author published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux has won in fiction, with previous works including Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" and Richard Powers's "The Echo Maker."

Other National Book Award winners last night, each of whom received $10,000, were Tim Weiner's "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA" for nonfiction, Sherman Alexie's "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" for young people's literature, and former US poet laureate Robert Hass's "Time and Materials" for poetry.

Joan Didion and National Public Radio host Terry Gross were presented honorary medals. Didion, who two years ago won the National Book Award in nonfiction for "The Year of Magical Thinking," noted that Norman Mailer had been at that ceremony.

Mailer, who died Saturday at age 84, was "someone who really . . . knew what writing was for," Didion said. Mailer also was praised by Hass, who recalled giving a poetry reading decades ago at Mailer's home and how "enormously generous he was to young writers."

"Tree of Smoke," which Johnson has said he first thought of in the early 1980s, has been widely praised since coming out this fall. It tells of spies, counterspies, and others caught up in the blur and horror of Vietnam from the day after President Kennedy was shot to the early 1980s. For fans of Johnson's "Jesus' Son" and other works, it's a recognizable story of the certainty of exploration and suffering and the hope for salvation.

Alexie, best known for such adult novels as "Ten Little Indians," gave an emotional speech in which he recalled being inspired by Ezra Jack Keats's "The Snowy Day" and the feeling of reading something that included characters who resembled him physically and "spiritually," in all his "gorgeous loneliness" and "splendid isolation." Alexie is a member of the Spokane Coeur d'Alene tribe.

The National Book Awards, founded in 1950, are sponsored by the nonprofit National Book Foundation.

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