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Handicapping the National Book Awards

Publishing’s Oscars have traded last year’s obscurantism for a new affinity—historical novels about real people—and Norman Mailer is getting the lifetime-achievement award. The lineup, the backstory, and the likely outcome.

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Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill
The story
Alison, a former model, finds redemption in friendship with an AIDS victim.
The cheering section
Lit hipsters and fans of raw, gritty fiction in the Dennis Cooper mold.
The author’s baggage
Unrealized promise: Gaitskill, an arty critic’s darling of the eighties, never quite blew up.
Odds of winning
4-to-1. Gaitskill is due for a big prize, and her years under the radar may appeal to the Book Foundation’s above-the-fray pretensions.

Trance, by Christopher Sorrentino
The story
Patty Hearst’s abduction, fictionalized in a jumpy—and lengthy—narrative centered on her bumbling kidnappers.
The author’s baggage
Big shoes to fill: Sorrentino’s dad, Gilbert, was a formidable (if not canonized) sixties modernist writer.
The cheering section
Aged hipsters who were going to readings by Amiri Baraka back when he was LeRoi Jones.
Odds of winning
7-to-1. A probing book, but it isn’t the first to deal intelligently with Hearst, and the author is still a relative newbie.


Holy Skirts, by René Steinke
The story
Fictionalized life of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Dada muse.
The author’s baggage
René who? The sophomore novelist does edit The Literary Review, but she’s by far the least well known of the nominees.
The cheering section
The would-be Algonquinites responsible for the resurrection of Dawn Powell and Carson McCullers.
Odds of winning
9-to-1. Steinke’s book is sexy and engaging, the sort of book that would have killed last year. But not this time.

Europe Central, by William T. Vollmann
The story
Convoluted history of nearly every Soviet and German artist or military figure affected by World War II.
The author’s baggage
More known than read: Vollmann’s seven-volume nonfiction survey of violence, Rising Up and Rising Down, ran to nearly 3,500 pages.
The cheering section
Pynchon fans who think Jonathan Franzen is a sellout.
Odds of winning
10-to-1. It’s 752 pages followed by 54 more, in small type, on “sources”—and it’s fiction. And the first character we meet is a telephone.


The March, by E. L. Doctorow
The story
A sweeping story of Sherman’s march, through the eyes of the general and a few invented players.
The author’s baggage
Goliath: Nominated for an NBA for The Book of Daniel in 1971, he won in ’86 for his quasi-memoir World’s Fair.
The cheering section
Old-school readers who disdain Pynchon and troll for Serious Literature.
Odds of winning
5-to-2, and the front-runner: Doctorow’s back in top form. But there hasn’t been a shoo-in since Franzen, and The March doesn’t set every heart aflutter.


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