The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is awarded each year (usually) for books published the previous year. Thus, the 2021 Pulitzer went for a book published in 2020.
I am, therefore, in time to make my sole nomination for the Prize this year. I have never done this before.
My nomination is Late City by Robert Olen Butler. Butler already has a Pulitzer for the remarkable, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. But that was way back in 1993. With Late City, I believe Butler should be considered for the rarified club of double winners occupied by my favorite author, John Updike plus Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner and Colson Whitehead.
I cannot improve upon the dustjacket’s description:
A visionary and poignant novel centered around former newspaperman Sam Cunningham as he prepares to die, Late City covers much of the early twentieth century, unfurling as a conversation between the dying man and a surprising God. As the two review Sam’s life, from his childhood in the American South and his time in the French trenches during World War I to his fledgling newspaper career in Chicago in the Roaring Twenties and the decades that follow, snippets of history are brought sharply into focus, moments that resonate profoundly forward even into our own century.
Given that story line, I was surprised at the deep impression the book made. Butler’s prose is remarkable, and his storytelling has few equals. This book is cleverly constructed and brilliantly written. Part history, part memoir and more. I give you three short examples with little context.
Sam is often beaten by his father. At age twelve, he reads a report of the 62 lynchings of Negroes that year. Sam asks aloud “What’s wrong with us?” and more. Sam’s father prods him with his foot and says, “Stand up.” Sam knows what is coming “But I understand this blow is different. It’s the first one for an idea. An idea that feels like my own.” His father speaks,
“You will not indict America for this, he says. “You will not even indict the misguided white men who did this. These men are your people. They were hasty. They acted unlawfully. But they have grievances. They rely on you for understanding, not censure. Is that clear?”
Elsewhere, in another context entirely, Butler’s gift for prose shines in phrases like “the chaste seemliness of the age, which we have inevitably assimilated.” In another scene, “… our thighs tightly and unwaveringly aligned, ardent but chaste, as our shoulders square around to each other and our lips speak wordlessly of what we have become.”
This is, I believe, a genuine masterwork. Maybe it will surprise, delight and move you as it did me.