National honors 'Legacy' and 'Smoke'

Denis Johnson won top fiction honors and Tim Weiner captured the nonfiction prize Wednesday night at the National Book Awards.

Weiner’s book “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA” was published by Doubleday. Johnson’s “Tree of Smoke,” from Farrar, Straus & Giroux, also involves the CIA and revisits Vietnam in a story centered on an intelligence operative.

Johnson wrote “Jesus’ Son.” Weiner, a New York Times reporter, has written two other nonfiction titles.

In the other competitive categories, Sherman Alexie won the award for young people’s literature for “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” and Robert Haas won the poetry prize for “Time and Materials.”

Founded in 1950 by a publishing trade group, the awards go to winners in four categories, each of which has five nominees. Winners get $10,000 apiece, but the honor itself is the big gain, as its reputation rivals that of the Pulitzer Prize.

Two lifetime honors were also bestowed at the ceremony held at the Marriott Marquis. The Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters went to Joan Didion, and the Literarian Award for outstanding service to the American literary community went to Terry Gross, host of NPR’s long-running “Fresh Air.”

“You can set a glass down on a Joan Didion sentence,” said Michael Cunningham, author of “The Hours” and several screenplays, who presented her with the medal. She gave a moving acceptance speech, recalling the pressure of completing her first magazine assignment as a recent Berkeley grad working at Vogue. “It wasn’t just writing on a word count or a sentence count — it was a character count, because everything had been laid out,” she said.

Public radio host Ira Glass gave the medal to Gross, lauding her range and daring. She recalled unnerving a few authors who wanted the upper hand in interviews, but also bonding with many more who have managed to “know what was in my heart before I did.”

Host Fran Lebowitz proved a dry hit, remarking that the Broadway stagehand strike that has left most of the Rialto dark had so upset show-starved tourists that a Canadian family was seated down front at the black-tie event. “They couldn’t get into ‘Wicked,’ ” she explained.

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