NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FOR FICTION 2019
The prize goes to a U. S. citizen who's written an outstanding novel or short-story collection published in the U.S. over the past 12 months. Below are the five finalists for 2019 (announced Oct. 8). Each finalist gets $1,000 and a medal; the winner, $10,000 and a bronze sculpture.
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
In Part 1, Sarah narrates a high-school romance that becomes fodder for the "teachings" of a charasmatic performing-arts instructor. Part 2, 12 years later, is narrated by Sarah's vengeful friend Karen. Karen believes she was shortchanged in Part 1, which, she reveals, is actually an excerpt from a novel by Sarah. In a brief coda, Claire, a young woman in search of her birth mother, completes the puzzle in a work of fiction that is also metafiction about writers and readers.
Sabrina and Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine
Eleven short stories set in Colorado feature Latina women struggling to survive poverty, racism, violence, and addiction. In "Sugar Babies," Sierra, a sixth grader, vents pent-up emotions about her mother's repeated desertion of both her and her father through a school project. The project involves an infant bag of sugar left in her care. In the title story, plain-looking Corina, a cosmetology student, prepares the corpse of her beautiful cousin, Sabrina, for burial, meanwhile confronting the disfiguring abuse the beauty has suffered.
Death of a Black Salesman
True, the twentieth century's foremost black playwright, August Wilson, objected to color-blind casting in American plays, singling out Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman as a case in point, speaking of the disservice he believed such casting does to African American culture. But can the same be said of color-minded casting, the deliberate allotment of some of the roles written for white actors to black actors, other roles to white ones? In fact, can a universally powerful work become newly expressive in such a staging? In the hands of creative artists at the top of their game, it can. Proof positive is London's 2019 Death of a Salesman, which casts Wendell Pierce as Willy Loman, Sharon D. Clarke as Linda, his wife, and, from October 24, two British favorites as their sons, the athletic Biff (Sope Dirisu) and the womanizing Happy (Natey Jones). The family is black. Meanwhile, Willy's employer, Howard, is white. So is Willy's benevolent moneylender-neighbor, Charley (Trevor Cooper), whose handouts Willy resents having to take. Consider their races. Can we, in this staging, attribute some of his resentment to Charley's white skin and the (unspoken) ways it must have factored into one's success at the time? Critics actually speak of four kinds of time in this play: the 24 hours it portrays, its social era (1949 America), psychic time (the fusion of past and present in Willy's head), and 2019 (audience time).
In dialogue and plot, the production is strictly faithful to Miller's original, except for a single substitution: in his younger years, Biff wins a football scholarship not to U Virginia but to UCLA, a school with black students and players in '49. But Biff is in a fix, and not because he's a petty thief (which he is). Having flunked math, he won't graduate unless the Fail is handled. So he seeks Dad's help to handle it, only to make a crippling discovery that squelches his ambition thereafter. And his father had such high hopes for Biff, for their achieving the rags-to-riches American dream of fame and fortune. On the road for 34 years, Willy has endured the daily grind heartened by that dream. Flickers of his jovial salesmanship still surface; at times, he's his old optimistic self. But mostly he's an exhausted, shuffling shell of a man now, whose frustrations erupt into verbal attacks, directed mostly at Linda. Clarke plays her as strong, caring, bewildered by and staunchly protective of the husband who roughly silences her. The family drama pulsates with tensions—between father and son, husband and wife.