With The Late Americans, Brandon Taylor returns to a space he has a talent for exploring: the minutiae of life on a college campus and in a college town.
The Late Americans concerns a carousel of characters, each revealing more about the others as they take their turns in the spotlight. The book begins with Seamus, a poet suffering through a workshop he perceives as full of people who only want validation from their peers, and who has not been able to submit his own work to the class all semester. Seamus introduces the reader to Fyodor, who carries the story forward next, and so the book passes, each chapter a baton handed to the next character, a glance forward and a glance back. There is a startling jump toward the end of the novel to a character who feels less central to the whole narrative, but her gaze at Noah—a central dancer who doesn’t “seek sex out so much as it came up to him like an anxious dog in need of affection”—is a sudden reminder that while all of the main characters are wound together, circling and sleeping their way through each other, making their big statements about the world, there is a world beyond them, watching and making its own statements as well.
Taylor is an expert at exploring otherness, especially between groups where it is perhaps not expected. There is the racial otherness, which is pervasive in this group, and there is class otherness, which so many of the characters try to ignore, even as it influences many of their interactions. But there is also the separation between the townies and students, between the writers and the dancers, the poets and the fiction writers with their separate bars.
The Late Americans, like Taylor’s previous works Real Life and Filthy Animals, is filled with sex and romance (shall we call it romance?) that is aggressive, turbulent, and often painful, both physically and emotionally. The novel is deeply concerned with intimacy and the proximity, distance, and brutality it commands. How close does a person truly let their lover get? Often, the closeness of physical intimacy is juxtaposed with an arm’s distance or more of emotional intimacy, arguments half had, words unsaid: “Timo never shared that part of himself anymore, not since those early weeks when they’d first gotten together. Now, he guarded that part of his life as if to share it would be some kind of betrayal of a promise he’d made to himself.” Sometimes, the intimacy teeters on the edge of, and falls fully into, the category of abuse. There are cigarette burns here, nonconsensual attempts at sex, a possible attempt at suffocation. But there is also the intimacy of friends, of a handful of people who are struggling to create art in a world that does not always value it, trying to find value in themselves. They’re all limping forward together, reaching for whatever bright spots they can, often finding those spots in each other’s beds, sometimes just in bumming a cigarette or sharing a trip to the lake.
In all his work, Taylor has a talent for observing the interior of life as it is happening right now. Like when Fyodor reads about a shooting in the Alabama town where his mother lives during his lunch break. When he finally manages to get his mother on the phone “he almost fell to his knees in relief.” And yet when their terse conversation is all but over, he reflects that “it seemed stupid to think that his life might intersect with the greater, terrifying course of life in the world.” These are characters who are aware of the implications of the things that they say, even as they try to brush it off with “‘I think that, yes, it’s not morally okay? You know? I get that.’” They are characters who often try to be politically correct, even when politically correct is not helpful, or is even harmful. They are “posturing all the time”, always catering to someone’s gaze, even if it’s their own.
For that is life for us Late Americans. Calling our loved ones to make sure they haven’t been shot, our lives feeling mundane and yet bound for some great tragedy at the same time, eyes always upon us, masks always on.
Fans of Taylor’s previous works will not be disappointed. This is as cutting a book as any.
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication date: May 23, 2023
Reviewed by Kathryn Ordiway