A 115-year-old man lays on his deathbed as the 2016 election results arrive, and revisits his life in this moving story of love, fatherhood, and the American century from Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler
A visionary and poignant novel centered around former newspaperman Sam Cunningham as he prepares to die, Late City covers much of the early twentieth century, unfurling as a conversation between the dying man and a surprising God. As the two review Sam’s life, from his childhood in the American South and his time in the French trenches during World War I to his fledgling newspaper career in Chicago in the Roaring Twenties and the decades that follow, snippets of history are brought sharply into focus.
Sam grows up in Louisiana, with a harsh father, who he comes to resent both for his physical abuse and for what Sam eventually perceives as his flawed morality. Eager to escape and prove himself, Sam enlists in the army as a sniper while still underage. The hardness his father instilled in him helps him make it out of World War I alive, but, as he recounts these tales on his deathbed, we come to realize that it also prevents him from contending with the emotional wounds of war. Back in the US, Sam moves to Chicago to begin a career as a newspaperman that will bring him close to all the major historical turns of the twentieth century. There he meets his wife and has a son, whose fate counters Sam’s at almost every turn.
As he contemplates his relationships – with his parents, his brothers in arms, his wife, his editor, and most importantly, his son – Sam is amazed at what he still has left to learn about himself after all these years.
I had quite a complex reaction to Late City by Robert Olen Butler, both good and troubling. But that is okay, because I can genuinely say, that I loved it.
115 year old Sam Cunningham is dying and we are told of his life leading up to this moment in conversation between himself and God. It is a story about not just his life, but his coming to terms with his life choices, love, loss and redemption.
I wanted to start with the part that troubled me, it is a very individual reaction and no reflection on the quality of the book. I’m mentioning it, because it caused me to stop and decide if I wanted to carry on reading. I personally have no religious belief and felt the use of conversations with God felt a little too ambiguous and it would have sat easier with me and had a greater emotional impact, if the relating of his story to the reader had not been centered around this spiritual element. Please don’t misinterpret this as a criticism of the writing our the characterization, it isn’t, just that I felt the story would have been more compelling without God guiding his exploration of over a century of living!
Despite this, Late City is one of the best books I have read this year. Why?
Firstly Sam is a fascinating and complex character whose life has spanned many wars and cultural changes that have shaped the modern world. Robert Olen Butler telling a story that takes him from his childhood and the impending horror of World War One, to the deeply divisive election of Donald Trump. Such epics sometimes become bogged down by lack of attention to characterization, allowing such events to distort and overpower the intimacy of a life lived. Late City manages to avoid that, becoming a beautifully wrought tale of the memories and experiences of one man, as he navigates a century of unapparelled change.
He is a character much of his period, strong, stoic, emotionally repressed, the worker, dedicated to his job and often absent from the life of his wife and son. The writer asking the reader and Sam if the isolation that he had from them, was worth the price his long life has forced him to pay. You feel his determination to do his duty, his strong moral compass and the detachment he has from his own emotions. You are forced to question if he is simply the product of his upbringing, or a more complicated victim of the way society forced men of his generation, to be a leaders within their families, not it’s beating heart. His feelings and emotional development are stunted and it is only as death approaches does he realize what this has cost him, my emotional reaction coming from the fact that he has seen so much, but lost so much. It is this, in the end, that drew me in, creating an emotional bond with Sam that still, weeks after I finished the novel, has me thinking about his life and the world he lived in.
You can buy Late City from Amazon, Waterstones and your local independent bookshop!
About the author
Robert Olen Butler is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of eighteen previous novels, including Hell, A Small Hotel, and Perfume River. He is also the author of six short story collections and a book on the creative process, From Where You Dream. He has twice won a National Magazine Award in Fiction and received the 2013 F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature. He teaches creative writing at Florida State University.