Financial Times: The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor

The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor — friends, lovers and desperate ambition

A constellation of characters shines in the Booker-nominated author’s caustic campus-set tale of aspiring artists

Seamus loathes most of the other students in his college poetry class. There’s Helen, “who lives above a bar in downtown Iowa City, writing poems about dying children and pubic lice”, and then there’s Linda from Tulsa and Noli the prodigy, both black, both brilliant, but definitely not friends, engaged instead in “high-intensity mutual exclusion”. Even their tutor, “never quite in contention for the Pulitzer, but never quite out of it either” is faintly damned for presiding over them all like “a fucking youth minister”.


The Late Americans is the new novel from Brandon Taylor, who was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize for his debut, Real Life, and it’s full of this enveloping cleverness, a winning combination of caustic observation and pleasurable mischief-making. Set among a circle of young poets, dancers and musicians at college, it’s also a book about art — the making of it and the believing in it — that manages to be, miraculously, at once, doubtful and transcendent. The story roams between miscellaneous classmates, friends and lovers — mostly gay, of various races and financial means — as they collide and cross paths, sometimes only fleetingly. They form a constellation rather than a cast. Among them, there’s Seamus, who, having written an entirely unironic poem about Alsatian nuns during the Thirty Years war, is wrestling with his classmates who accuse him of colonialism and Catholicism. “Where were the drone strikes? Where were the anti-capitalist critiques?” they demand as he seethes. He works in a hospice kitchen, seeking comfort by bisecting alliums and simmering bisque.


Fyodor, who wears overalls and ear plugs in his job as an industrial “meat leaner”, flays beef among hydraulic presses, and finds himself feeling “thick and slow” when visiting art galleries with his dancer boyfriend Timo. Noah is a dancer too, beautiful, wealthy, Japanese-American and caught up in an inexplicable relationship with an older, closeted and violent local called Bert. His classmate Ivan has a sideline in online pornography while preparing to relinquish dance for a more lucrative career in banking.


Taylor delineates them all swiftly and finely, in this sweeping portrait of young Americans striving to make art in an age of late capitalism. They are ambitious but alert to their privilege or lack of it. They are sexually free, but still moved by true intimacy. They are enthralled by art and beauty, and yet troubled by money and loneliness. Taylor moves fluidly between his characters, giving them each distinctive inner life. It means that though The Late Americans is in essence a campus novel, it feels smaller and truer than the dramatics of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and, while it centralises gay relationships, it wisely evades the sensationalist fabularity of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life.


Several of the characters have strikingly old eastern European names (Ivan, Goran, Fyodor), a clue perhaps that we should look for a genealogy in the great 19th-century Russian novels about disaffection and decadence. But instead, with its deep sympathy for the promise and the pains of young Americans, really it feels like an Edith Wharton novel crossed with the kids from Fame — in the very best possible sense. Like Alan Parker’s extraordinary film, The Late Americans is compelling in its determination to capture the tenderness of aspiring artists, their desperate ambition and crushing uncertainty. And, more than this, Taylor imbues them with a piercing reflectiveness too.


This balance — between the critique of art and the thrill of it — is the novel’s real miracle. On the one hand, there is Ivan who, having grown up convinced that “the great geniuses — Balanchine, Robbins, Joffrey, Ailey, Diaghilev — were the inheritors of the priestly class, the keepers of culture and legacy”, finds himself readily reconciled to a different world of bankers and financiers. “What was culture,” Taylor has him wonder, “compared to the brute, terrible force of money and its ability to make and remake worlds?” But, on the other hand, there’s his dancer friend Fatima who, rejecting her choreographer’s work as pretentious and derivative, still performs it “as though she is giving herself over to something larger. No, not larger, which denotes a kind of magnitude. It is deeper in her. She feels she is giving herself over to something inevitable, like gravity or the sheer forces of ice sheets sliding past each other down a mountain. Something ringing in the column of the world, passing like electricity, raw, feral light.”


There are not many women in the novel but part of the constellated effect of Taylor’s cast is that seemingly minor characters such as Fatima still shine with an equal brilliance. Bea — Noah’s lonely neighbour, who sits at her desk crafting mysterious dioramas with tiny figures, entering the novel very briefly and very late indeed — has this same magnificent luminescence. It’s the kind of trick that only a very confident novelist might pull off. But Taylor has every reason to be confident. The Late Americans is remarkable. If you’re going to write about art, the folly of pursuing it and the irrefutable power of it, you should probably do it well. Taylor does it truthfully and beautifully.


The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor, Jonathan Cape £18.99/Riverhead Books $28, 320 pages

FT Brandon Taylor The Late Americans