The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor: Finding your way in the world

Cover image for The Late Americans by Brandon TaylorIt took me some time to get around to reading Brandon Taylor’s Real Life thanks to the hype surrounding it when it was first published but I enjoyed it when I did, certainly enough to read The Late Americans whose premise also appealed. Reading like a series of intricately linked short stories, Taylor’s thought-provoking novel charts the tensions running through the lives of a group of post-grad students in their final year, several still undecided about their future, some with more choice than others.

It was a problem in the world, he thought, people going around pretending to care about others when they really didn’t.

Friends, colleagues, sometimes lovers, acquaintances met at parties, the students are all facing an uncertain future when they leave their Iowan campus. Ivan has been forced to major in finance, a promising dance career scuppered by a knee injury. His lover, Goran, bemoans his privileged position as the adopted child of rich white parents while knowing his future is assured. Timo is a mathematician, a brilliant pianist who can’t square his middle-class background with his working-class, townie lover’s. Fatima and Seamus must earn their way to their degrees, Seamus infuriated by his fellow poetry students’ preoccupation with identity while Fatima works in a café cramming in her dance practice at the end of a shift, ‘the real work’ as one of her peers describes it. Noah, meanwhile, seems intent on sleeping with every man he encounters, including closeted Bert whose resentment at Noah’s unthinking freedom spills over into violence. Over the course of the year, the students’ lives will collide, some leaving a trace, some not, their putative futures beginning to take shape until six of them spend a farewell weekend together in the country.

It was a moment of peace. They had all put down their weapons. Their sharp and pointed ideas about one another and themselves and the world.

Not an easy synopsis to write, nor is it a comprehensive one. There’s a great deal more going on in Taylor’s portrayal of this diverse set of young Americans as they prepare to launch themselves into life outside academia. Each of its nine chapters is narrated from the perspective of a different character, some barely connected to the main group, yet it’s remarkably cohesive. Taylor explores a multitude of themes – race, gender, sexuality, class, privilege and money to name but a few – with ease and fluency. The tone is sometimes acerbic – student identity politics are neatly skewered via Seamus who’s a bit too smartass for his own good – sometimes quietly thoughtful. Characters are complex, fleshed out with backstories that occasionally surprise. It’s a very accomplished, polished piece of work, cerebral enough to leave readers with much to think about, but sufficiently immersive to feel an involvement with its characters. A difficult book to sum up, and this review’s not done it justice, but suffice to say I talked about this novel a lot when I read it and thought about it a great deal more. The ending left me hoping that Taylor might revisit this disparate group. I’d like to know how they’re getting along.

Jonathan Cape: London 9781787334434 336 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)

15 thoughts on “The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor: Finding your way in the world”

  1. This does sound intriguing, Susan. Lots of different characters, their lives intersecting at various points. Would it work as a TV adaptation, do you think? It seems to have that kind of feel (based on your description).

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