October 17, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

The NBA: 1962 and 2008

The nominations for this year’s National Book Award were announced this week, and among the novels on the list for fiction were two first books: Salvatore Scibona’s The End and Rachel Kushner’s Telex from Cuba. It’s not every year that two first-time novelists are nominated for such a prestigious award, and it’s hard not be put in mind of another memorable time that two now-legendary first novelists were nominated for the award: Richard Yates and Walker Percy.

The list of nominees for the 1962 National Book Award was perhaps the greatest ever assembled: Richard Yates’ first novel, Revolutionary Road, went up against an intimidating group of great 20th century novels– Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, Heller’s Catch-22, and another first novel, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. Among the nominated novelists, Yates eventually lost out to Percy. According to rumor, the writer and one of the judges for the award that year, Jean Stafford, argued successfully for giving it to Percy– and began a kind of hard-luck string for Yates that would plague him throughout his career. Revolutionary Road would continue to be the most acclaimed book he would write, and this was a writer who had every story he ever wrote rejected by The New Yorker (they would later posthumously publish one of his stories). Filmmakers from John Frankenheimer to Godfather producer Al Ruddy would attempt to adapt the book into a movie to no avail.

All of this post-NBA-nomination difficulty wore heavily on Yates, and it’s hard not to have this all in mind with the coming of a Sam Mendes-directed film adaptation of the book due out this winter. Leonardo DiCaprio will play Frank Wheeler, with Kate Winslet as April. No word on the sales of film rights for Scibona or Kushner as of yet, but while they don’t go up against JD Salinger or Joseph Heller for the National Book Award this winter, they’ve got some formidable competition in Marilynne Robinson, Peter Matthiessen and Aleksandar Hemon. We’ll have to wait until the November awards ceremony to see what becomes of their chances. In the mean time, we might do to go back and check out those first books by Yates and Percy. Yates was in his 30’s and Percy in his 40’s before each published their first novel, and the smack of maturity, mastery and precision is all over their novels– just as it is with Scibona’s book, which took ten years to write, and Kushner, who isn’t herself a wunderkind.

Both Yates and Percy went on to have distinguished careers; even for all of his depression, doom and gloom, Yates wrote a number of great books after that 1962 award went to Percy. Woody Allen name-checks The Easter Parade in Annie Hall, and the short story collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness stands the test of time– not to mention having one of the truly great titles of any story collection. The End might not have the same titular splendor, nor has Telex From Cuba been referenced in one of Allen’s movies just yet. But we’ll have our ears perked up to see if one of them doesn’t just outdo the competition later this fall.