Centenarian ponders a life of yearning and regret in ‘Late City’

Robert Olen Butler’s tale unfolds as a conversation between the dying man and God.

Sam Cunningham, retired editor-in-chief of the Chicago Independent, is 115 years old, and he’s just about to die. He’s outlived his son by 70 years, his wife by almost 50. As a teenage sniper in World War I, of which he is the last living veteran, he killed more than a hundred men with, he confides, “nuance and precision.”

Can this scale of youthful death-dealing simply be excused by appeals to patriotic duty? This is one of several reconciliations Sam will have to make on his deathbed, and time is running short.

It’s election eve 2016, night of Trump’s victory. Undiminished, Sam’s scribbler’s mind composes an explanation for Donald’s success: “…since those two buildings in Manhattan came down in my hundredth year, my country’s gone veeringly mad. It feels like there’s worse to come.”

With darkness closing in, Sam asks God, “Couldn’t you have taken me yesterday?”

“Who knew?” God replies. “I didn’t create the electoral college, Sam.”

That’s right, it’s God, the supercilious wit who rules the center of “Late City,” the 24th work of fiction by Florida author Robert Olen Butler. The novel’s title refers to a newspaper’s evening edition and, of course, serves as an analogue for Sam’s dwindling condition.

It’s a contentious relationship. Sam thinks “he’d already parted ways” with God way back in his Louisiana boyhood. Like any good reporter, he asks too many questions. Exasperated, God responds, “Look, Sam … when the universe finally expands into nothingness and I’m about to die, I’ll summon you back to interrogate me.”

But the God that author Butler has created is reasonable and modern, insisting that he/she/we/they is “gender fluid.” Through irreverent exchanges, we come to understand God’s laissez-faire non-plan for the little people: “God runs the show,” explains Sam. “His creatures set their own agendas.”

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

God would like Sam to tell his personal story, to file a final brief in what they’ll call the imaginary “Cunningham Examiner,” which is to be “a journalistic version of the earthly thing called free will.” Thus, “Late City” unfolds chronologically, something like a roll of newsprint the length of a man’s life, which might be all there is to eternity.

Sam grows up in Lake Providence, a “place full of cypress stumps that I always fancy to be steeple caps of wizards waiting to rise from the water one of these days.” His mother’s eyes are “the blue of a forest shadow on the snow.”

His banker father is a small-town brute who beats Sam and his mother. He teaches his son how to handle a rifle: “I can shoot the head off a squirrel at a hundred yards with iron sights,” says Sam. The youngster reads the Harvard Classics, but his true love is the newspaper, which becomes his portal to the world outside of his parish. “In the beginning was the News,” he says. “News is life. Life is news.”

Sam flees to the killing fields in France, where he meets Johnny Moon, fellow sniper and foxhole philosopher, who consoles the dying by cradling them as if he were their mother: “…if today’s your day to die, at least maybe you’ll have an American mama who can hold you when you go.” It’s an image that will both comfort and haunt Sam to the final pages of “Late City.”

After the war, he goes to Chicago, determined to realize his dream of becoming a real journalist. For an ambitious young reporter in the 1920s, Chicago is a perfect, hugely complex world of corrupt politicians and gangsters thriving on Prohibition.

Sam is committed to his wife Colleen and his son Ryan, although with Nazi storm clouds rolling across Europe, he frets that Ryan " has become a boy whose characteristic instinct is to domesticate a katydid.”

Sam knows that war is coming “because of the heartless ranting of a self-glorifying moron.” He tells Ryan, “Just know that sometimes a bad thing can be shared by multitudes. While for a good thing, there might be only a few of you.”

Like Sam, Robert Olen Butler has a journalistic background. He was involved in intelligence work during the Vietnam War and won a 1993 Pulitzer Prize for “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,” an outstanding short story collection about the kaleidoscopic community of Louisiana’s Vietnamese refugees.

As a Florida State University writing professor, his lectures were gathered in “From Where You Dream” (2005). Here, Butler emphasizes the importance of “yearning” as an engine for character and narrative, but, he cautions, “Working from your literal memory will keep you out of your unconscious, out of the zone you must enter … The unconscious is scary as hell.”

Sam Cunningham’s yearning was to become a world-class newsman, but, inevitably, professional distractions compromised his relationship with his family. In the final reckoning that is “Late City,” he must now confront the demon of his obliviousness. “I reported but I did not see. I cared but I did not do. I loved but I did not comprehend. I’m sorry for all of this, deeply, but I don’t even know how to properly be sorry.”

While it has a consistently subtle profundity, “Late City” isn’t exactly a Novel of Ideas — it’s too entertaining and accessible for that, especially with jagged bolts of wry comedy dispensed by God: “A lot of stuff that tries to pass for my voice is just humans tweeting in all caps in the middle of the night.”

As Sam heads toward an omniscience of his own, startling revelations surface under the banner headline, “GOD REVEALS WITHHELD MEMORY.” This is what readers have come to expect from the front page of the Cunningham Examiner. “You put it all in the story by today’s deadline,” says Sam, “and tomorrow you wait for further developments.” As usual, God has the last word: “That’s pretty much how you all live your lives.”


“Late City”

by Robert Olen Butler

Grove Atlantic

304 pages, $27