An aged individual wanting again on life is a dependable body in fiction, and Sam Cunningham, the narrator of Robert Olen Butler’s “Late City,” has an terrible lot of life for materials. He’s 115 years outdated, the final surviving veteran of World War I, and he’s dying in a Chicago nursing house mattress within the hours after Donald Trump has been elected president.
In his 40-year profession, Butler has remained distinguished and unpredictable. He has gained prizes (together with a Pulitzer in 1993, for his story assortment “A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain”), all whereas remaining firmly midlist — that unflashy realm of regular manufacturing that some imagine is endangered (and even extinct) in a world of conglomerate publishing and extra generalized threats to literacy. He is, briefly, the kind of author one not solely hopes to have a good time however needs to guard.
So there is no such thing as a pleasure in reporting that his new novel is an outrageously sentimental misfire.
Sam, as could be anticipated for somebody his age, is at peace along with his mortality. “It’s high time I began to die,” he tells us. But earlier than he goes, his retrospective survey shall be guided by a dialog with God.
The experience is wobbly nearly as quickly as we begin pedaling.
Giving God a talking function in a novel is basically leaning into the primary a part of high-risk, high-yield. And sadly, Butler’s God is out of central casting, if the casting director had been in grade college.
On Page three, Sam asks God “what the hell just happened.” It takes a second for God to comprehend he’s referring to the presidential election.
“‘Oh, you mean him,’ God says. ‘You tell me.’
“‘Tell you what? I have no idea.’
“‘Neither do I,’ He says. ‘But that’s how I selected to make you people. Full of surprises.’”
A few pages later, God says: “You creatures there below never were very good at figuring out divine plans.” And a few pages after that: “Listen, Sam. A lot of stuff that tries to pass for my voice is just humans tweeting in all caps in the middle of the night.”
Robert Olen Butler, whose new novel is “Late City.”Credit…WFSU Public Media
It’s plain to see that that is dreadful, and one spends the opening scenes praying it’s going to fall away, that God will exit and Butler will merely settle into his character’s memory.
But God persists. He prompts Sam to “inhabit your past as you lived it, without knowing the future that will come of it.” Raised in Louisiana by an abusive father and a loving however cowed mom, Sam enlists to battle in World War I when he’s 16. His father helps him lie about his age in an effort to enroll, and Sam goes on to serve as an skilled sniper in France.
After the warfare, he leaves Louisiana to place distance between him and his father. He goes to Chicago, the place he rents a room from a younger warfare widow named Colleen. Before lengthy, landlord and tenant fall in love. They have a son, Ryan, who turns into a pivotal third character within the plot.
Sam works his method up from cub reporter to editor in chief at a massive progressive newspaper. Despite his deep self-identification as a “newsman,” the work we see by him is of the overly florid human-interest selection. Near the top of the novel, Sam gently mocks the type of function story that he calls a “Sunday supplement feel-good.” His personal writing, and the tone of “Late City,” are of a associated model, with a unhappy patina masking the heartwarming components.
God’s featured function in “Late City” contrasts with Satan’s in “Hell,” Butler’s 2009 novel about a TV information anchor who finds himself in a fiery afterlife densely populated with celebrities. But that was a satire — extreme and corny, however deliberately so. “Late City” is extra of a Hallmark manufacturing. It reveals very transient flashes of Butler’s humor and irony, that are in his instrument equipment, nevertheless it’s nearly fully, tragically guileless. There are moments treacly sufficient to make your knees buckle. The ultimate scene will certainly carry some readers to tears, however these it leaves dry-eyed may also be slack-jawed at the mawkish payoff to an already mushy setup earlier within the novel.
One small mercy is that regardless of appearances by Al Capone and Huey Long, the novel by no means blooms into a “We Didn’t Start the Fire” litany or “Forrest Gump” cameo-fest. Butler is genuinely fascinated with Sam, Colleen and Ryan — in a human-scale story quite than a full-dress historic stage manufacturing. And although a century-plus life may have lent itself to bloat, the ebook is a speedy 290 pages, and kind of wraps up its timeline with World War II.
The presence of Long, Capone, Trump and Sam’s abusive father implies greater ideas about American masculinity, however the ebook’s political and psychological concepts will not be far more refined than its imaginative and prescient of God.
There are revelations for Sam, ultimately, about these he was closest to in life. These are attention-grabbing sufficient and, like different components of the ebook, name into query simply how shrewd a reporter he was.
If there’s a silver lining, at least Butler remains to be taking audacious probabilities at this stage of his profession. And Lord is aware of there’s an viewers for historic tear-jerkers.