Imagine Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, only instead of being visited each night by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, you are visited by God, just one night, on the eve of your death. Instead of seeing what is or what will be, you are exclusively revisiting moments from the past as if living them for the first time.
Such is the premise of Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler’s new work, Late City.
Sam Cunningham is the last known World War I survivor and is nearing 116 years old. On the night of Donald Trump’s election, Sam is visited by God and assumes this is his send-off from the world. First, though, God interviews Sam and wants him to return to past moments of significance from his life and experience them anew. During these encounters, Sam – who for many years worked as an editor at the Chicago Independent – introduces these flashbacks as news articles from the Cunningham Examiner. Sam encounters each recollection chronologically, starting in his childhood home of Lake Providence, Louisiana, and progresses through major events which shaped him as a person: growing up with an abusive father and submissive mother, enlisting in WWI at the age of seventeen, meeting his wife, having a child, his career beginning as a cub reporter and ending as editor-in-chief at the Chicago Independent.
With each new significant revival, Sam explores issues of war, racism, family, religion, life and death, right versus wrong and politics. In an era of political upheaval, the themes in Late City are elemental in exploring the histrionics behind what we’re seeing now versus what has been going on for decades, if not centuries. Specifically, as we watch news and other media outlets come under fire for false reporting and “fake news,” the themes explored in Late City touch on the importance of truth. “I’m lucky to be at the right newspaper, where I can become what I seek to be: A real newsman,” Sam says in one excerpt. “A reporter who will record as truly as he can what the actors in the world are doing and saying. Objectively. Let the story tell itself. Keep a paper’s opinions and agendas on the editorial page. Banish the lies and distortions of sensationalism.” Sam has to reconcile what he has been taught from a young age to be true – what society may believe to be true – with the actual truth, and how most situations are not black and white like the paper he prints his stories on.
This is a tale of human reckoning. Each expedition to the past illuminates how one’s choices can affect the rest of one’s life. In Sam’s case, he’s on a trek to uncover truths and reconcile how his actions have impacted those around him. Perhaps his most important discovery is whether there is room for redemption so close to the end.
With a structure that varies from the norm, Butler’s crisp prose, stark descriptions, and startling contrasts of the then and now are captured in a long-form narrative without page breaks and chapters. The novel begins with a slow launch, and its transitions from present to past with no guided breaks can at first be tricky to differentiate. It can read as one long stream-of-conscious delve, or perhaps an extensive news article. Either way, it’s one that should be read. As the story progresses, the power and sentiment build until the very last sentence. Following this story through to its end is worth the read.
By Robert Olen Butler
Atlantic Monthly Press
Published September 7, 2021