If Crook’s Corner had never existed, one of the many writers associated with the restaurant might have cooked up its fictional analog anyway.
Imagine a writer pitching something like this: Just after World War II in a small Southern town, an eccentric, academic local woman is murdered near the fish market she owns. The murder is never solved and over the years, the market changes hands, serving as a taxi stand and pool hall before a former town council member opens a barbecue joint and names it in honor of the deceased fishmonger.
In the early 1980s, the restaurant changes hands once more and, in those hands, transforms into something special—something thoughtful, inventive, and unpretentious with national renown. Soon, writers and artists and academics begin to haunt the space, toasting PBRs and sharing plates of shrimp and grits. Nothing is perfect, but there is community and creativity. Twelve feet above the restaurant, a fiberglass sculpture of a pig looms, a pink avatar for that gentle sense of possibility.
It sounds like a gothic backdrop plucked from a Barry Hannah story, but that is the story—at least in part—of Crook’s Corner, a restaurant so storied that it was perhaps inevitable that it would one day be tied to a literary prize. And that’s exactly what happened: in 2013, the restaurant established its sponsorship of the inaugural Crook’s Corner Book Prize for the “best debut novel set in the American South.”
Original Crook’s Corner head chef Bill Neal was an avid reader and writer, as was his successor, Bill Smith, who retired from the restaurant in 2019.
The prize is intended to “encourage emerging writers, whether published by established publishing houses, small independent publishers, or self-published by the author,” and for many years has included $5,000 and a gratis glass of wine at the restaurant every day for a year.
Last June, Crook’s Corner quietly closed its doors, another restaurant casualty of the pandemic, taking with it a certain vision of an older, open Chapel Hill and that romantic promise of 365 glasses of wine. Nevertheless, its prize, for now, lives on.
“I’m happy to say that the Crook’s Corner Book Prize will continue, despite the closing this year of the restaurant,” Crook’s Corner Book Prize Foundation president Anna Hayes told the INDY in an email.“The prize was modeled after the prestigious book prizes awarded for many years by famous ‘literary cafés’ in Paris, and when we created the prize for the best debut novel set in the American South, the obvious and perfect partner was Crook’s Corner Restaurant, renowned for its Southern cuisine. Maybe the restaurant will re-open one day.”
On January 11, at a virtual prize ceremony, organizers announced that writer Eric Nguyen is the 2021 recipient of the prize. Nguyen’s debut novel, Things We Lost to the Water, follows a Vietnamese mother and two sons as they immigrate to New Orleans and try to build a life and maintain ties with Cong, the family patriarch who stayed behind in Vietnam.
Nguyen’s novel was one of 36 entries; other shortlisted titles, announced in September, were The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. and The Girls in the Stilt House by Kelly Mustian. Celebrated South Carolina novelist Ron Rash, author of the novels Eureka Mill and Raising the Dead, served as judge for the 2021 prize.
“There is much to admire in Nguyen’s novel, but two aspects stand out to me,” Rash says. “The first is his ability to reveal the inner lives of his characters. Their motivations and actions are distinctly individual, but they always feel true to the vagaries of the human heart. Equally impressive, and rarer in a first novel, is the novel’s superb structure, which moves the characters and the reader toward a climax that is both surprising and inevitable.”
Past prize winners include Wiley Cash, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, and Sion Dayson; past judges have included Randall Kenan, Lee Smith, Tayari Jones, and Charles Frazier, who once called it the “coolest book prize in the country.”
“Winning the Crook’s Corner Book Prize is an absolute honor,” Nguyen told the INDY. “The prize is so important in not only highlighting emerging writers but showcasing the diversity of Southern literature as well. The South has such a rich history of storytelling, and this prize shows how alive the literary scene is in the region. I’m proud to be able to add to that.”
Next year, Ben Fountain, author of National Book Award finalist Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a title also longlisted for the inaugural Crook’s prize, will serve as judge for 2022. That there will be future judges and prizes is something to celebrate.
Book awards don’t exactly grow on trees. The literary world is a famously closed one, and its prizes often go to a recycled list of well-pedigreed and connected writers; the designation “emerging writer,” too, is often shorthand for someone with a book or two already under their belt. Opportunities for writers trying to find their footing—especially Southern writers, especially writers self-publishing or publishing outside of a mainstream press—are scarce.
“The only thing harder than writing a first novel is writing a second, but you need that bridge from one to the other,” says the writer Daniel Wallace, a restaurant regular and the author of Big Fish, over the phone. “This prize gives the writer the confirmation that they’re on the right path.”
If Crook’s was haunted by the memory of Rachel Crook (and later Bill Neal, who passed from AIDS in 1991 at the young age of 41), then perhaps the changing landscape of Chapel Hill—with its Franklin Street Target, homogenous juice chains, and the current squeezing of arts and library funding out of the town’s public university budget—will be haunted by the spirit of Crook’s. Maybe the book prize will make sure of it.
“It is rare for a prize to be established and then to be successful, and the Crook’s Corner Prize has really quickly found a place in the landscape,” says Wallace. “Having something like this out there is vital.”
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