Review: 'The Late Americans' a Beautifully-written Disappointment
Brian Bromberger READ TIME: 4 MIN.
Nobel-prize winning poet Louise Gluck is quoted in Brandon Taylor's latest novel: "What are we without this? Whirling in the dark universe, alone, afraid, unable to influence fate," setting the bleak tone of this campus novel, more of a linked short story collection that jumps from character to character. Taylor zeroes in on the final year in the interconnected lives of poets, dancers, and other artists – mostly gay men of varying racial and class backgrounds – to form a loose circle of lovers and friends attending university in Iowa City.
Coincidentally, the setting resembles the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa where Taylor got his M.F.A. That experience also provided fodder for his superior brilliant debut, the Booker Prize shortlisted "Real Life," about the experiences of a gay Black doctoral student in a predominantly white Midwestern Ph.D. program. Another college story, but from a Black vantage perspective usually ignored, it sported an empathic dignity strangely absent from "Late Americans."
Seamus, the main character (only because he gets two chapters where everyone else has only one), is a white male working-class frustrated poet in a writer's seminar who voices out loud the pretentiousness of what he's hearing. He isn't afraid to give an honest evaluation of his classmates' work, which he feels is steeped in woke victimhood. He sees their wounds and oppressions as excuses to legitimize substandard output that promulgates an unearned authenticity. He basically hates everyone's writing. In a later chapter, the class will retaliate by eviscerating Seamus' excellent poem.
This first chapter is the best, with the most biting send-up of a writer's workshop since Lena Dunham's satire of the same program in the final season of HBO's "Girls." The conceit behind both is the humorous tension created between critiquing other people's work, while seeking affirmation for one's own efforts.
Seamus, asked to leave the class, heads for his job as a hospice kitchen cook. He has a sexual encounter that turns violent with Bert, an older, local, closeted gay man, whose father is a dying patient there. Bert burns a hole in Seamus' face with a cigarette. In a later chapter, when Seamus is writing his poem, he has sex with Oliver, a fellow seminar student, who confesses he's doing so because Seamus looked so sad, which enrages him. Seamus can be a self-loathing jerk, but he's the only character that elicits any sincere rapport with readers.
In the following chapter, we meet a couple, Fyodor and Timo, both of whom are mixed-race. Timo, a pianist, comes from a wealthy family. Fyodor is employed in a meatpacking slaughterhouse as a butcher, which upsets vegetarian Timo, who calls it murder, even though he supports the death penalty for mass shooters, a hypocrisy Fyodor denounces. They are an on-and-off-again pair who separate, then reunite, repeatedly.
Then we encounter another unhappily mismatched duo, Black Goran and mixed-race Ivan. They no longer have sex. Ivan formerly attended ballet school, but abandoned that career due to an injury.
He's now pursuing finance so he can make lots of money. Goran, raised by a wealthy adoptive white family, studies music. Ivan sleeps with Noah, a married dancer, "who didn't seek sex out so much as it came up to him like an anxious dog in need of affection." Noah recommends Ivan do amateur porn for a social media site, which irritates Goran.
There are two incidental women characters introduced towards the novel's conclusion. Fatima, a Black modern dancer, must work as a barista in a local coffee shop to support herself, but some friends question her dedication to art. She gets pregnant and pursues an abortion.
Bea, one of Noah's neighbors, is a lonely artist in her thirties who carves fingers out of fiberboards and teaches swimming to poor children. Her sturgeon farmer father abused her, "pinching her breasts quite hard and make a sound like a goose." There are no happy people in this book.
These intelligent millennial characters debate and argue with each other about race, power, politics, and, especially, class, trying to ascertain how social forces have shaped their identities, which seem in constant flux. The ones with money feel guilty, as do the poorer Marxist/Socialists trying to survive. There is a nihilist stream underneath all the sturm und drang. Even the act of creativity isn't a source of salvation, but a soothing balm from torment and past trauma, either revealed or hidden.
The sex, which is bountiful (and well described), seems motivated mostly by boredom, or as a wellspring of recreation or temporary succor. The reader might require a flow chart to figure out who's sleeping with whom, but you can basically assume everyone is having sex with everybody else. Friendships, emotional chaos, and betrayals vacillate, complicated by the aforementioned race, class, and sexuality issues.
Ultimately, the novel is unsatisfying. The chief flaw – the exception being Seamus – is that all the characters seem alike, talking the same way, so it's easy to get them mixed up or blurred together. For all their intelligence and capabilities, they lack depth and insight about themselves.
This is a novel of despair sans humor (excluding the writing seminar in the first chapter), because all the characters seemed steeped in hopelessness and self-loathing. They're so mean and unforgiving to each other.
Most frustrating is Taylor's proclivity to pose huge questions such as, What does art demand? What is the role of the artist? How does art help you live a moral, fulfilling life?
But because the future seems so uncertain, his protagonists don't know what they want or what lies ahead for them once they graduate into a harsh outside world, a source not of opportunity, but dread. Thus, these weighty issues remain heady exercises, destined to remain unresolved.
Taylor is especially strong in dialogue, as well as composing tautly-constructed, vivid sentences and perceptive, razor-sharp, snarky observations. "The Late Americans" is a noble, beautifully-written, bravura letdown, but a letdown nonetheless.
Brandon Taylor will be at City Arts & Lectures at the Sydney Goldstein Theater, 275 Hayes St. June 2, 7:30pm. $36. www.cityarts.net
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