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National Book Awards: Peter Matthiessen's "Shadow Country" Wins Fiction Prize

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NEW YORK — The economy hung like a cloud over the 59th annual National Book Awards. Barack Obama was the silver lining.

"It's a good time to be alive," announced author, Obama fan and fiction committee chair Gail Godwin, as she gracefully pulled out an envelope Wednesday night_ in stated emulation of the president-elect _ and revealed that Peter Matthiessen had won for "Shadow Country," a thorough revision of a trilogy of novels released in the 1990s.

As the book industry faces a holiday season that Barnes & Noble Inc. head Len Riggio has said could be the worst in memory, it gathered on Wall Street, of all places, under the 70-foot ceiling and Wedgewood dome of Cipriani, dining on baked tagliolini and roast filet of beef, referring nervously to a ruinous stock market.

"Wall Street is not at the moment a street of riches, but of ruin and broken dreams," attendee Ron Chernow, the business historian and former book award winner, told The Associated Press before the ceremony. "We're having cocktails and wearing tuxedos and it doesn't feel completely right."

In his opening monologue, awards host Eric Bogosian joked about the gilded venue: "This was a bank once, and they built banks like this because banks never fail."

But the night turned in to a virtual crowning of Obama as writer-reader-in-chief, a friend to book people in so many ways: as a fellow liberal and the first black president-elect; as the author of two million-selling books; as a public thinker who has boosted sales for Doris Kearns Goodwin's Lincoln biography, "Team of Rivals," and for a work about the first 100 days of Franklin Roosevelt's administration, Jonathan Alter's "The Defining Moment."

Bogosian called Obama, "in the broadest sense of the word, a reader." Noting that the president-elect has been openly influenced by "Team of Rivals," Bogosian commented, "That's just so cool."

Honorary award winner Maxine Hong Kingston, who, like Obama, spent many years in Hawaii, praised his way of "putting things right by talking them through." Fellow honorary winner Barney Rosset, the publisher and First Amendment agitator, called Obama "a dynamic leader," a miracle.

Declared the 86-year-old Rosset, who walked gamely to the podium, with a cane, but grinned boldly: "For the first time in recent memory I am not thinking of renouncing my American passport."

Obama also starred in the acceptance speeches of the nonfiction winner, Annette Gordon-Reed (for "The Hemingses of Monticello"), and poetry winner Mark Doty ("`Fire to Fire"), who cited the election and his recent marriage to his male partner: "We are on a path to equality for all Americans and nothing is going to turn us back."

The winner for young people's literature was "What I Saw and How I Lied," by Judith Blundell, a former genre writer-for-hire.

Winners each received $10,000.

Matthiessen, a world traveler, naturalist and founder of the Paris Review, is one of the great names in modern letters, but few _ including Matthiessen _ expected to see him nominated this year. His novel, neither new nor old, condenses and deepens his epic about a ruthless landowner from the Florida Everglades.

As he wrote in the book's "Author's Note," he had never been happy with the second volume of the trilogy, "Lost Man's River," and so returned to the rural Florida setting of the early 20th century and retold his Faulkernian epic of a community haunted by a violent and racist past.

"This book was quite a trial for everybody, including me," he said Wednesday night, thanking his publisher, the Modern Library, for agreeing to release the new work. "They (the original books) weren't best-sellers. They didn't make a lot of money."

Matthiessen, 81, also won a National Book Award in 1979, when he received the nonfiction prize for the spiritual journey he narrated in "The Snow Leopard." He consoled his fellow fiction nominees finalists, three of whom _ Aleksandar Hemon, Salvatore Scibona and Rachel Kushner _ hadn't been born when he was first published.

"I'm back!" he exclaimed. "And they're going to be back, too."

The awards, founded in 1950, are sponsored by the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization that offers numerous educational and literary programs.

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