The Turner House
By Angela Flournoy
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
341 pages, $23
By Jane Smiley
76 pages, $26.95
By Karen Brady
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Family sagas play out over American history in fine new novels by Jane Smiley and Angela Flournoy – one a continuation of a trilogy by a long-revered author, the other a debut offering.
First we have Smiley’s “Early Warning,” spanning 1953 to 1986, the expected second installment of the veteran writer’s century-long triad – launched last year with the publication of the strapping Iowa farm epic “Some Luck.”
Then we have Flournoy’s “The Turner House” – not only a first novel but a lamentation for and a paean to Detroit, from the mid-1940s to the present day, a funny yet heart-wrenching book, both beautiful and revealing of all the ways close human beings relate to one another (and to places and things) over time.
Like the Langdons of Smiley’s trilogy, the Turners are a family of size – headed by Francis and Viola Turner and seen here largely through the eyes of Cha-Cha, the eldest of the 13 Turner children; his much younger brother Troy, and Lelah, the baby of the clan and the child whose gambling addiction has brought her back to the empty Turner house on Yarrow Street where she is secretly living, telling herself:
“The porch light had been on when she drove up, which meant Cha-Cha still paid the electricity bill. A relief. A house with electricity couldn’t be classified as abandoned, and an individual with a key to that house didn’t fit the definition of a trespasser…”
This is the Turner house of the book’s title – not only the Turner family’s “sedentary mascot, its crumbling façade the Turner coat of arms,” but a metaphor certainly for Detroit’s struggling Eastside. Cha-Cha, at 14, saw a ghost – or “haint” – in this house, an event that repeats itself many years later despite his father Francis’ famous claim, “Aint no haints in Detroit.”
Cha-Cha would like to prove him right, becoming in later adulthood – and at the insistence of his boss – “the first Turner to visit a shrink,” someone he initially imagines as “likely too thin and too pale, the type to be uncomfortable with Cha-Cha’s wide, tall, brown presence in her office. Her discomfort might be obvious, or worse, she would fancy herself a liberal and make a show of trying to relate to Cha-Cha, a 64-year-old black truck driver who saw ghosts.”
Cha-Cha is a triumph here – a character who not only grows but who grows in our hearts (as does his intrepid spouse, Tina, who tells him, “You’re gonna realize that just cause a Turner thinks a thing is normal doesn’t mean it is. Not at all.”).
Flournoy keeps the Turners – and the Yarrow Street house – in the forefront as her novel jumps about in time, from World War II-era Detroit to the passing of its auto prowess, the 1967 riots, the rush to the suburbs and, in the book’s most recent years, Barack Obama’s political ascendency and the nation’s debilitating housing bubble.
It is the bubble that brings the Turner house to the immediate attention of Cha-Cha and his siblings. Francis is gone, Viola is dwindling and living (temporarily, she claims) with Cha-Cha and Tina while the Turner house, with a refinanced $40,000 mortgage, has plunged in worth to a mere $4,000.
What to do? Troy, a Detroit policeman, has a plan – or, better put, an illegal scheme that would, with no one the wiser, quietly line his own pockets. Other Turners have other ideas about what to do with the Turner house while Cha-Cha would rather concentrate on his haint – and, in one of the best parts of this endlessly intriguing book – calls each of his siblings to ask what he or she remembers of the day he first encountered, or they were first were aware of, his haint.
Their replies run the gamut, with Quincy, the third child, taking the middle ground:
“Of course you’re not crazy,” he tells Cha-Cha. “You’re my big brother, and a Turner man. Listen to me though: that haint might be real, it might just be in your imagination, I don’t know. But your reaction to it is a choice. All this hysteria over a ghost? You can unchoose that, Cha. Turner men don’t choose hysteria.”
A marvelous Turner family party rounds out this solid debut novel whose characters – and depictions of the city of Detroit – are hard to part with. Not so with Smiley’s “Early Warning,” however: We are promised that, after this, there will be one more installatment in Smiley’s formidable Langdon family trilogy.
This is splendid news for those of us prone to seduction-by-Smiley – but alarming, I would think, to readers intent on keeping the Langdons and their offspring and spouses (not to mention friends and lovers) straight. Even a family tree offered at the start of “Early Warning” becomes useless after the first of many extraneous individuals enters the narrative.
This is distracting, certainly, although not unlike life (which may well be Smiley’s point). But the best way to read any product of the Smiley brain is to let the work take you where it will – to a political argument here, an illicit affair there, a medical diagnosis in one instance, a tension-filled marriage in another, a child disappointing her parent (but not an aunt), a son making compromises, a rivalry between twins, an unexpected death, or simply a voyage into the meandering thoughts of a Langdon infant…
With history as its backdrop, the Langdon family lumbers on. With Smiley as its puppeteer, who cares exactly who belongs to whom?
Frank, the brilliant eldest child of Rosanna and the late Walter Langdon, is the book’s most visible character. He has become wealthy via the defense industry – but, unlike his brother Joe (who still tills the soil of the family’s Iowa farm), Frank is restless and discontented, musing:
“If someone had told him forty years ago that he could feel relief in all the imperfections of his life, that he could derive some sense of pleasure from a bad marriage, disappointing children, a faltering career, an array of physical aches and pains, and an intermittent correspondence with his brother’s son, he would have punched that person in the nose. But here it was again: once he identified a single thing in this world he actually wanted…that very thing slipped away…”
History and human angst (as well as joy and the humdrum of daily life) jockey for position in “Early Warning,” a book that shines in its portrayal of the Vietnam War and the advent of the AIDS era as well as the funeral of Lillian, the Langdons’ second-born daughter, wife of former CIA operative Arthur Manning.
Each chapter is a year in Smiley’s “Last Hundred Years” trilogy – so we know we will leave the 1980s and travel to the present day in the last of the three books, scheduled, we pray, for publication soon.
In the meantime, we have these words of Arthur Manning to live by as we anticipate meeting, once again, “the noisy, wild Langdons, who sometimes did what they were told, but always had something to say about it.”
Karen Brady is a former News columnist.