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Washington Blade: LGBTQ News, Politics, LGBTQ Rights, Gay News: A campus novel filled with the complex realities of our time

‘The Late Americans’
By Brandon Taylor
c.2023, Riverbed
$28/320 pages

You likely wouldn’t want to hang out with cranky characters who obsess about money, bemoan the art they make and live in a place where the winter is brutal and even the elm trees are diseased.

Yet, in “The Late Americans,” acclaimed Black, queer author Brandon Taylor, makes you care about a group of often unlikable, isolated, unhappy people. These characters smoke too much, cheat on their lovers and are so freaking hard on themselves, their friends and their art.

“The Late Americans” is set in Iowa. Most of the characters are graduate students at the University of Iowa along with some “townies” (people who aren’t students and live in the town). Most of the grad students are poets, fiction writers, dancers, and musicians working toward master’s degrees. Others are studying finance or math. The “townies” work on farms, factories, and stores.

“The Late Americans” is a campus novel. But don’t be fooled. You won’t find students canoodling, savoring the bright blue sky, engaging in congenial dorm bull sessions or writing poems about blue herons.

Taylor, whose first novel “Real Life,” was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize, has given us a campus novel filled with the complex realities of our time: racism, sexism, 21st century capitalism and classism. Many of its characters have experienced the impact of the 2008 recession. Donald Trump is referenced.

It’s usually ill-advised to believe that fiction is closely linked to the lives of authors. Narrators can be unreliable and writers create imaginary worlds. “The Late Americans” isn’t auto fiction. But its setting seems to be modeled on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where Taylor got an M.F.A. degree. This doesn’t make “The Late Americans” an autobiography or detract from Taylor’s work. It adds authenticity to the bleak, but, captivating universe Taylor has imagined.

While writing “The Late Americans,” Taylor told The Guardian he was inspired by Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Anton Chekhov and other 19th century writers. Taylor said he was “deeply reading” 19th century novels with their “broad casts of characters from all kinds of classes,” the paper reported.

“The Late Americans” works well as a novel but is structured like a group of linked short stories. Each chapter is focused on a different character. But the characters intersect throughout the novel. Most of them know each other to some extent. They’re lovers, co-workers, friends, and classmates. 

Taylor has said that writing short stories is his sweet spot. His second book “Filthy Animals” is a superb collection of linked short stories.

It’s hard to pull off a novel that wants to be linked short stories but Brandon nails it in “The Late Americans.”

The novel opens with a chapter devoted to Seamus, a white working class poet who works in a hospice kitchen to pay for his graduate work. He’s ashamed of being gay, has furtive sex and deplores what he thinks of as the veneration of victimhood along with the ridiculousness of elitist poets and artists. “Miserable despite the praise,” Taylor writes of the poets in a poetry seminar, “when praise seemed so much the point of the poems they wrote.”

“Curiouser and curiouser, thought Seamus,” Taylor writes, “that a person, presented with what they wanted most, could seem so miserable about it.”

You’d need a seating chart worthy of a White House state dinner to follow all of the goings-on of these characters. But don’t let that worry you. As you read, you’ll find yourself going along with the flow.

There’s Frydor who’s Black and works in a meatpacking plant. His vegetarian boyfriend Timo, who’s from a Black middle-class background, endorses the death penalty. Gordon, a rich musician, is coupled with Ivan. Ivan, to Gordon’s embarrassment, makes sex tapes to support himself.

“Money is like an animal,” thinks Fatima, a Black woman who works as a barista so she can study dance, “changeful and anxious, ready to flee or bite.”

Despite barriers of race, class and economic hardship, the characters in “The Late Americans” bond in friendship and their love of art, and find glimmers of hope for their future.

You can’t ask for more from a novel.

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