National Book Award Winning Debuts

In light of Tea Obreht’s NBA nomination for The Tiger’s Wife, we got to thinking about the other debut novels that have received the honor. Past winners have been Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1953), Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus (1960),  and more recently Three Junes (2002) by Julia Glass. But there are many others that we’re fans of.

From Here to Eternity (1952)

James Jones

James Jones’s meaty debut novel follows a group of soldiers stationed in Hawaii in the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Sensational in its time, it remains vital today; our nation once again suffering through an economic depression, and our military filled with soldiers who might otherwise be unemployed. And just in time for the repeal of “dont ask don’t tell” the author’s estate recently released the restored edition of the novel* that contains gay sex references which were too controversial to be included when it was first published. Don’t bother with the film. The book is darker and dirtier, and it is long enough to keep you company through the winter.     —Jason Porter

*Only available as an e-book.


The Moviegoer (1962)

Walker Percy

The Moviegoer is a sad and lovely lament on modern life. Binx Bolling is a businessman living in New Orleans who, for some reason, finds himself spending less and less time with other people, and spending more and more time at the movies. Binx is searching for something, but what? Even he’s not sure. Except that “polls report that 98% of Americans believe in God, and the remaining 2% are atheists or agnostics—which leaves not a single percentage point for a seeker.… Have 98 % of Americans already found what I seek or are they so sunk in everydayness that not even the possibility of a search has occurred to them?” The Moviegoer has often been called a “philosophical” novel, which has surely done a good job of scaring off potential readers for years. But the term is inadequate; the book is light, poetic, wonderfully ambiguous, frightfully relevant, and one of the most moving attempts at reconciling modern America with that great and nebulous pennant, American tradition.     —Scott Cheshire


Birdy* (1980)

William Wharton

William Wharton kept 250 canaries from the age of 17—a personal infatuation that no doubt fueled this study into a bird obsessed man who thinks he is a canary, while his best friend tries to bring him back to sanity. Published when Wharton was in his 50s, Birdy was met with immediate critical acclaim. “Only the most rigorous imagination can make a story of this sort work for a reader who is generally indifferent to birds,” wrote Peter S. Prescott of Newsweek.     —Kate Gwynne

*Winner in the First Novel Category



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