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The Reading Life: The vagaries of awards

June 17, 2011 | 10:55 am

Thomaswilliams
When Thomas Williams' novel "The Hair of Harold Roux" split the 1975 National Book Award with Robert Stone's "Dog Soldiers," his career seemed to be assured. And yet, very quickly, "The Hair of Harold Roux" -- not unlike the rest of Williams' writing -- became something of a lost book, a novel that, until its reissue this month, was long unavailable and out of print.

How did this happen? It's not a matter of "The Hair of Harold Roux" itself, which is deep and heartfelt, the story of a man who feels himself, in the most literal sense imaginable, to be running out of time. For him, eternity is looming, although in the short term he takes comfort in stories, in their ability to bestow meaning, to allow us to come together with each other in some way. This, of course, is what literature offers, which Williams understood. But he also understood that, in the face of eternity, stories are at best a temporary consolation, and that for all our work, all our efforts at connection, there is nothing that can save us from the inevitability of the void.

Williams died in 1990 of lung cancer, with all nine of his books out of print. The reissue of "The Hair of Harold Roux" will, one hopes, stir interest in the rest of his work. But either way, the book's uneasy history raises some interesting questions about the vagaries of awards.

Williams, after all, is hardly the first National Book Award winner to be forgotten: There's J. F. Powers' "Morte D'Urban," the 1963 fiction winner, or Orlando Patterson's "Freedom," which won the nonfiction prize in 1991. Look at other awards, such as the Pulitzer Prize in fiction -- which, William Gass once noted,"takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses" -- and you'll find more examples. Anyone read any Booth Tarkington recently? I didn't think so. And yet, he won the Pulitzer twice, in 1919 for "The Magnificent Ambersons" and again in 1922 for "Alice Adams."

As for what that means, I think, it's only this: That when it comes to awards, as with anything else, there are no guarantees. Writing must make its own way in the world, and often, the best stuff (and believe me, "The Hair of Harold Roux" is among the best stuff) falls to the side. Who can say what the culture notices, and why? But with the re-release of "The Hair of Harold Roux," we have the opportunity for a bit of literary reclamation ... 36 years after it won the National Book Award and promptly disappeared.

-- David L. Ulin

Photo: Thomas Williams. Credit: Bloomsbury

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