Despite the anxiety, was there really any doubt that the Pulitzer Prize board would pick a fiction winner this year? Not after the hugely negative response to last year’s decision to forgoan award, which had people challenging the Pulitzer process itself. What really rankled was the idea that somehow contemporary fiction did not measure up. Now here comes this year’s winner, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son (Random), to blow that idea out of the water.
In an extraordinary act of writerly intelligence, Johnson has imagined himself into the very soul of a wheeler dealer making his way through the minefield of North Korean society—a society so tightly sealed that Johnson could hardly have dropped in for an informative chat. The resulting novel blends the edginess of a political thriller, the nuance of a fine psychological study, and the insight of a sociological treatise—having read it, we know what living in North Korea feels like. Now that’s good fiction writing.
Just to confirm that Johnson is the real deal, note that this second novel is markedly different from his first, the futuristic, doomsday Parasites Like Us—though that work is also a superb exercise of imagination. And he has an entire shelf of awards testifying to his abilities, among them a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Swarthout Writing Award, and a Stegner Fellowship; Discover Great New Writers honors from Barnes & Noble and Debut Writer of the Year honors from Amazon.com; and a Young Lions Award nomination from the New York Public Library. The Orphan Master’s Son was also a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist.
Clearly, Johnson is already beloved by readers in the know; winning the Pulitzer Prize has the advantage of bringing him to a larger audience. Perhaps the same could be said of Sharon Olds, winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for Stag’s Leap, a typically forthright meditation on the end of her 30-year marriage in 1997. True, Olds has already won top award like the Lamont Poetry Prize and the National Book Critics Circle; Stag’s Leap also won the T.S. Eliot Prize and was only one of two books of poetry (and the only contemporary one) on RUSA’s Notable Books List for 2013. Olds also just finished a six-year term as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. So it’s not as if this prize will jump-start her career.
Still, poets aren’t really household names (alas), and the Pulitzer is big news that could bring Olds fresh readers, even those who don’t often read poetry. So will the sensitive subject matter, plumbing a personal upheaval experienced by so many. Held from publication for some time, the book does not represent the culmination of Olds’s 30-plus years of writing poetry. But it does plunge readers into her concerns and show them the essence of her style.
Interestingly, Pulitzer Prizes are given in both history and general nonfiction, which this year gave history another shot, Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America (Harper:HarperCollins) having claimed that category. King’s book discusses an instance of racial injustice in 1949 Florida that resonates to this day, and his experience covering U.S. Supreme Court history for the New York Times and the Washington Post must have proved especially helpful.
The history prize went to Fredrik Logevall’s Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (Random). Shelves may be overflowing with books on the Vietnam War, but this work should prove to be the resource on the war’s beginnings for lay readers and scholars alike. Notes Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA, Logevall “is an exacting scholar whose books… examine the Vietnam War in a global context.”
Finally, Tom Reiss’s The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (Crown) won the Pulitzer Prize for biography. Reiss’s book, also a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, essentially resurrects Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who was born to a slave woman in Haiti but became a general in the French Army and the inspiration for his son’s enduring The Count of Monte Cristo. The book has the advantage of being both important history and absorbing good fun.