Book Review: ‘The Late Americans,’ by Brandon Taylor

Taking up the narrative baton are the finance and piano students, Ivan and Goran, and two other dancers, Daw and Noah. Also Fyodor, employed at a meatpacking plant and probably ill-fatedly dating a vegetarian and logician, Timo, who is opposed to the slaughter of animals but supports the death penalty for mass shooters. Painters and others flit into the mix.

A flow chart would be handy to keep track of all the overlapping relationships, career changes and ethnicities here; some gown, some town, some teetering in between. Yet the arbitrariness of opportunity and vocation — who gets to make art? who has to dig ditches? — is clear and pointed. Fyodor brings a sculptor’s sensibility to cuts of beef; Ivan goes from broke to a boundless future in New York in the bright flicker of an email.

Female characters are fewer and more peripheral, though two arrive with force: Fatima, yet another dancer, who chafes at her barista side job and suffers an unwanted pregnancy; and Bea, one of Noah’s neighbors, who was abused by her father, a sturgeon farmer who would “pinch her breasts quite hard and make a sound like a goose.”

She teaches swimming to poor children and, in her spare time, carves fingers out of fiberboard. Older than the various students, she seems to be visiting from another book. (Her encounter with a bloody fingerprint in a playground gave me the same kind of shiver I got from Truman Capote’s classic short story “Miriam.”)

As the title suggests, “The Late Americans” is suffused with nihilism: a sense of a society nearing its end. The hospice patients are obsessed with the extinction of tortoises and other species. The ash trees of Iowa City, planted to replace elms felled by Dutch elm disease, are now succumbing in turn. The young adults struggle in a gig economy, weighed down by student loans or the guilt of trust funds, fantasizing about law school. To Goran, money falls “like dust or snow, floating down in great tufts from his parents and grandparents.” To Fatima, it’s “like an animal, changeful and anxious, ready to flee or bite.”

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