DUBLIN, June 11 Michael Thomas won one of English language fiction's richest prizes on Thursday for a novel depicting the difficulty of attaining the American Dream for an African American.
"Man Gone Down" scooped the 100,000-euro ($140,000) International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, beating off competition from 145 titles nominated by public libraries from 41 countries.
The unnamed first person narrator, once a promising Harvard student and now an impoverished construction worker in Brooklyn, is married to a white woman with whom he has three children.
He is "not fallen but standing on the precipice", according to the IMPAC judges' citation. "It is a story of the American Dream gone awry, about what it's like to feel preprogrammed to fail in life and the urge to escape that sentence," the book's U.S. publisher Grove Atlantic says on its website.
Thomas, whose novel was nominated for the prize by the National Library Service of Barbados, said the American Dream can be variously defined, but the credit crisis has certainly pushed African Americans even further from it.
"One of the things I hope are taken away from reading the book is there are different American dreams," Thomas told Reuters. "One being materialism which this narrator does not really have, it's more the African American striving for freedom," he said in an interview.
"If not from slavery then from segregation, if not from segregation then from stereotype, if not from stereotype then from glass ceilings and redline mortgages."
To "redline" can mean to refuse home mortgages to entire neighbourhoods deemed too poor, a term that has acquired significance in the credit crisis, one of whose main causes were financial products based on "subprime" mortgages.
The fact that Barack Obama has become the first African-American president of the United States is not going to solve such social problems at once, though it is a symbolic victory, Thomas said.
"Maybe it's a message of hope that finally we have a president of intellect and philosophical heft rather than didactic, meanspirited, short-sighted small-mindedness," he said.
The IMPAC prize, established in 1994 by Dublin City Council and sponsored by U.S. company IMPAC, was last year won by Lebanese novelist Rawi Hage with "De Niro's Game", a tale of childhood in wartorn Beirut. [ID:nL12823051]
Asked to pick out some of the most important features of his work -- a New York Times top ten book of 2007 -- Thomas said:
"There is a gallows humour to it, I think."
(Reporting by Andras Gergely)