Review: 'Late City,' by Robert Olen Butler

By Hamilton Cain

FICTION: A Pulitzer Prize winner returns with a robust if uneven novel that encapsulates the American Century.

"Late City" by Robert Olen Butler; Atlantic Monthly Press (290 pages, $27)

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We know this man: From George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life" to the ailing documentarian in Russell Banks' "Foregone," he flashes back over the arc of his life when staring down the barrel of mortality.

Robert Olen Butler offers a fresh spin on the conceit in his immersive if uneven new novel, "Late City," in which a 115-year-old newspaperman rewinds the 20th century while bantering on his deathbed with God.

Tucked away in a nursing home on the night of the 2016 presidential election, Sam Cunningham is ready to give up the ghost, but a wisecracking God insists he must look backward before crossing over. Sam complies.

The child of a white banker in the Jim Crow South, he's at odds with his racist, abusive father while craving the older man's love. Sam lies about his age to enlist as a sniper in World War I, picking off Germans in the cratered French countryside. After his discharge he migrates to Chicago, where he marries the beautiful, capable Colleen, fathers a son and embarks on a formidable run as a journalist, inspired to become, like his mentor, "a substantial, newsroom-casual man, coatless, a bow tie askew, his shirtsleeves rolled to the elbows … his trousers all the way to what is probably the bottom of his rib cage, which itself is lost beneath a well-rounded, life-in-a-swivel-chair middle section."

This is the seductive career that Sam embraces, a road map through the hijinks and low troughs of the American Century. "Late City" moves briskly, paced by boldface headlines and tragic events, from the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 to the Sept. 11 attacks. There are cameos from figures such as crime boss Al Capone and flamboyant populist Huey Long, "dressed like a dandy, but studiously an American one: his suit is the color of the amber waves of grain; his shirt, the purple mountains majesties; and his tie, the fruited plains, if the fruits were all strawberries."

The novel may seem preoccupied with politics, but Butler would argue that canvassing the public square, antennae tuned to rumor as well as fact, is a reporter's raison d'être.

With its robust narrative and staccato cadence, the first half of "Late City" appeals, but midway the novel stumbles into formulaic plotting and wooden dialogue. God nails his one-liners, but he's still just a device to vary the flow of episodes.

Sam, too, flattens beneath the weight of his halo: he's preternaturally down with Black sharecroppers, feminist causes and the labor movement, atoning for his own privilege. This may be Butler's bid for topicality, but too often he sermonizes rather than telling Sam's story.

If the whole is less than the sum of its parts, "Late City" is still an engaging read and a commendable quest into the underpinnings of the complicated, often contradictory American people. More crucially, the novel is a poignant meditation on the circle of life, the wonder we all feel as it slips away.

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Hamilton Cain reviews fiction and nonfiction for the Star Tribune, Oprah Daily, the New York Times Book Review, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. He lives in Brooklyn.


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