But God persists. He prompts Sam to “inhabit your past as you lived it, without knowing the future that will come of it.” Raised in Louisiana by an abusive father and a loving but cowed mother, Sam enlists to fight in World War I when he’s 16. His father helps him lie about his age in order to sign up, and Sam goes on to serve as an expert sniper in France.
After the war, he leaves Louisiana to put distance between him and his father. He goes to Chicago, where he rents a room from a young war widow named Colleen. Before long, landlord and tenant fall in love. They have a son, Ryan, who becomes a pivotal third character in the plot.
Sam works his way up from cub reporter to editor in chief at a big progressive newspaper. Despite his deep self-identification as a “newsman,” the work we see by him is of the overly florid human-interest variety. Near the end of the novel, Sam gently mocks the kind of feature story that he calls a “Sunday supplement feel-good.” His own writing, and the tone of “Late City,” are of a related brand, with a sad patina covering the heartwarming elements.
God’s featured role in “Late City” contrasts with Satan’s in “Hell,” Butler’s 2009 novel about a TV news anchor who finds himself in a fiery afterlife densely populated with celebrities. But that was a satire — excessive and corny, but intentionally so. “Late City” is more of a Hallmark production. It shows very brief flashes of Butler’s humor and irony, which are in his tool kit, but it’s almost entirely, tragically guileless. There are moments treacly enough to make your knees buckle. The final scene will surely bring some readers to tears, but those it leaves dry-eyed might also be slack-jawed at the mawkish payoff to an already mushy setup earlier in the novel.
One small mercy is that despite appearances by Al Capone and Huey Long, the novel never blooms into a “We Didn’t Start the Fire” litany or “Forrest Gump” cameo-fest. Butler is genuinely interested in Sam, Colleen and Ryan — in a human-scale story rather than a full-dress historical stage production. And though a century-plus life could have lent itself to bloat, the book is a speedy 290 pages, and more or less wraps up its timeline with World War II.
The presence of Long, Capone, Trump and Sam’s abusive father implies bigger thoughts about American masculinity, but the book’s political and psychological ideas are not much more sophisticated than its vision of God.
There are revelations for Sam, in the end, about those he was closest to in life. These are interesting enough and, like other elements of the book, call into question just how shrewd a reporter he was.
If there’s a silver lining, at least Butler is still taking audacious chances at this stage of his career. And Lord knows there’s an audience for historical tear-jerkers.