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Late City – Robert Olen Butler

by Venky

(Image Credit: noexitpress.co.uk)

The year is 2016. The results of a tumultuous Presidential election have just been announced in the United States of America. A 115-year-old Sam Cunningham, who also happens to be the last surviving combatant of World War I is hours away from a peaceful death in a Chicago nursing home. As though the jolt triggered by the election was inadequate, Sam Cunningham is also forced to strike up an invigorating and introspective conversation with God, who appears by his bedside and commands him, albeit gently to relieve a life that has seen more than its fair share of peaks and troughs.

Pulitzer Prize winning author Robert Olen Butler’s “Late City” is a dexterously yet predictably woven kaleidoscope of faith, follies, fear and fantasy. Seeking to evoke the raw emotions of the reader with dollops of poignant passages, and phrases, Late City more than manages to accomplish this feat. In sync with and in paying obeisance to the changing times, there is also a moving anti homophobic twist at the fag end of the book.

Born to an abusive father and a helplessly weak mother in Louisiana, Sam Cunningham is marinated in the uncompromising ideology of masculinity. Given a Winchester 1894 model rifle when still a teen, Cunningham shoots down doves and deer with frightening accuracy and uncomfortable regularity. He also has drilled into him the entrenched dogma underlying the concept of segregation, although the intricacies of such a belief remains alien to his young and evolving mind. Lying about his age, he enlists to wage war and is assigned to the brutal and unforgiving trenches of France in the capacity of a sniper. Distinguishing himself beyond even his own wildest imaginations, he kills innumerable and unsuspecting Germans and experiences the horrors of the trenches before getting back to Louisiana. But, detesting the very presence of his abusive father, he moves to Chicago pursuing greener pastures.

Renting a room from a war widow named Colleen, he swiftly proceeds to initially rent her heart as well, before ultimately owning it. Bagging a job at the progressive newspaper Independent, Cunningham comes into contact with a variegated set of individuals who are as different from one another in the character spectrum as chalk and cheese. From getting tidbits from Al Capone to interviewing Huey Long, Cunningham is a genuine supervisor of the contrivances of a gigantic human factory.

The birth of a son, Ryan Cunningham brings forth not just untold joy but curious contradictions as well. Intent on not giving his son the same undesirable upbringing accorded to him, Sam Cunningham refrains from instilling even a semblance of aggressive behaviour in his offspring. But when Ryan is around twelve, a sled escapade makes Sam realise that Ryan is still a novice when it comes to the lay of the human world and the terrain of its contrivances. Europe by this time is in a grip of fervent. A rabid socialist named Adolf Hitler has assumed the reins of power in Germany and is threatening to drag the world deep into the abyss of yet another cataclysmic war.

Sam decides to have a man-to-man talk with Ryan and in a no holds barred manner relieves the horrors of World War I and his own role in it as a one-man killing machine. A poleaxed Ryan, requests to excuse himself with tears rolling down his cheeks. Sooner than later, Sam and Colleen’s greatest fears come to fruition when Ryan, of his own volition, enlists as a marine, with World War II at its very peak. Will Ryan survive the perils facing him at sea? The rest of the story deals with the hopes, expectations and anticipations harboured by both parents and the son.

While Sam Cunningham’s dialogues with God makes for alternatively funny (“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” ) and poignant reading, the conversation at times emphasizes the obvious. For example, God’s lament “You creatures there below never were very good at figuring out divine plans “seems to be a bit forced and ‘exacted’.

While the faint hearted and the mellow are sure to shed buckets of tears, especially as the book nears its climax, the dour would take the ending as yet another addition to a select collection that gives the inevitable a genuine coat of sentimental paint.

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