When I heard that Robert Olen Butler had come out with a new historical novel, I was expecting a well-written, tightly plotted thriller similar to his Christopher Marlowe Cobb series about a journalist-turned-spy during the Great War. But in Late City, the thrills come from the author’s breathtaking literary prowess, as with his previous novel Perfume River and the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.
The story begins in 2016, shortly after the presidential election is called for Donald J. Trump, when Sam Cunningham, dying at the age of 116, is commanded to account for his life by God. Sam begins with his Louisiana childhood, spent under the thumb of his bullying father, a bitter white supremacist. The one good thing his father provides is exposure to the world through newspapers. When the boy is sixteen, his father abets his lie to the army about his age and sends him to fight in France as a sniper. Though scarred by his war, Sam later fulfills his boyhood dream of becoming a journalist, reporting on the great stories of the day, from race riots and union strikes to war and political corruption. Throughout the examination of his life, he must grapple with regrets for his choices if he is to make any sense of himself.
As I devoured the story, I had to wipe away tears more than once. The narrative’s emotional power is fully earned, never manipulated, and Butler’s elegant language is true to the tongue. His research blends so seamlessly into the story that one is inclined, at times, to believe it isn’t fiction at all. Late City is an honest, poignant reckoning of what it means to gaze unblinkingly at our own failings and to find transcendence.