NEW YORK -- James McBride won the National Book Award Wednesday night for "The Good Lord Bird," an irreverent sharp-eyed novel narrated by an escaped slave. It was published by Riverhead Books, part of Penguin Random House.
Taking the stage with a stunned expression, Mr. McBride, who was considered an underdog in speculation before the awards, said he had not bothered to write a speech.
Mr. McBride wrote the book amid personal tragedies, he said, citing the deaths of his mother and his niece, and the unraveling of his marriage.
"It was always nice to have somebody whose world I could just fall into and follow him around," he said.
In nonfiction, George Packer won for "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America," a book published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux that the judges cited for its "account of economic decline that traverses large cities and small towns," in which Mr. Packer "casts a discerning eye on banks and Wall Street while tracing the painful dissolution of much of our economic infrastructure."
In his speech, Mr. Packer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, thanked "Americans who gave me the great gift of trusting me with their stories and allowing me into their lives so I could try to illuminate some of what's gone wrong with America in the last generation and in their own lives, some of what's gone right."
The awards, in their 64th year, were presented at a black-tie dinner at Cipriani Wall Street. More than 700 guests attended, an increase over recent years, the organizers said.
To be eligible for a 2013 National Book Award, authors had to be U.S. citizens and to have written books that were published in the United States between Dec. 1, 2012, and Nov. 30, 2013.
In keeping with tradition, the judges met on the day of the ceremony, at a decadent lunch at the restaurant of their choosing, to select the winners. The winners received $10,000 and a bronze statue.
While the National Book Awards tend to be criticized for their selections of little-known or obscure books, few were complaining about the finalists this year. Rachel Kushner, Jhumpa Lahiri and George Saunders, nominees in fiction, were critical darlings.
Three of the five nonfiction finalists hardly suffer from low profiles: They are staff writers for The New Yorker.
The poetry award went to Mary Szybist for "Incarnadine," published by Graywolf Press. The award for young people's literature went to Cynthia Kadohata for "The Thing About Luck," published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, a division of Simon & Schuster.
Maya Angelou received the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, a prize that was presented by Toni Morrison.
Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of The Nation magazine, introduced E.L. Doctorow, the recipient of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Mr. Navasky recalled that Mr. Doctorow once said: "There is no room for a reader in your mind. You don't think of anything but the language you're in."
"Edgar, I have news for you," Mr. Navasky said. "You may not have us in mind, but you are in a roomful of your grateful readers."
Mr. Doctorow took the stage and cooled the mood with a somber speech on technology, government surveillance and the Internet. (Somewhat uncomfortably, Amazon.com and Google were sponsors of the event.)
"Text is now a verb," Mr. Doctorow said. "More radically, a search engine is not an engine. A platform is not a platform. A bookmark is not a bookmark because an e-book is not a book."
"Reading a book is the essence of interactivity," he added, "bringing sentences to life in the mind."