By Jane Smiley
443 pages, $26.95
By Karen Brady
With the publication of “Golden Age,” Jane Smiley not only brings her century-long “Some Luck” trilogy to a resounding close but includes, among her acknowledgments, the near-hidden line: “I would like to thank the members of the U.S. Congress for being so easy to satirize.”
This is vintage Smiley – for whom much is clearly serious but little is above send-up – and it is exactly this edge that balances the three books comprising Smiley’s 1920–2019 saga of an American family finding its way from a small hands-on farm in Iowa to a world gone global (and predictive).
Take, for instance, Joe – the member of the Langdon family who remained on the farm throughout “Some Luck” and “Early Warning,” the first two books in the triad. By “Golden Age,” Joe is in his 70s and watching his son Jesse, heir to the operation, survey the property:
“…It made Joe uncomfortable when Jesse talked about ‘growth medium’ and ‘inputs’ and ‘upticks.’ (Jesse) spent his evenings on a computer, and when he walked the fields, it was with soil-moisture instruments and that sort of thing in his hand. If he wondered about the weather, he watched the news, not the western horizon, and he would never in a million years name a sheep or pat a cow. What you needed to do these days, just to survive, was to turn it into an equation. With an equation, every solution was interesting, even the one that put you out of business…”
It is in this precise, parabolic way that Smiley tells a hundred-year tale not only of an American family but of the country itself: “Some Luck,” the start of the Langdon saga, follows a historic arc from post-World War I, to the Great Depression to the advent of Hitler’s war.
“Early Warning” has, as its backdrop, the tensions of the lengthy Cold War and the Vietnam conflict (both in Asia and in the minds of some Langdons) along with civil rights and the arrival of AIDS – while, a chapter a year, the Langdons spread out from their Midwestern farm roots.
By the beginning of “Golden Age,” the ever-burgeoning family is comprised of members of seemingly every stripe and persuasion, including a few in the national movers and shakers category.
Richie Langdon, in fact, is running for Congress – partly as “the son of war hero and self-made defense industry innovator Frank Langdon” – while his twin brother, Michael, is rapidly becoming known as a financial wizard. We have known this trio since each was an infant – Frank in the initial book, the twins in its successor – so we are aware of Frank, the decorated World War II veteran, as brilliant and a risk taker all of his life, and we know that Michael shares these characteristics but is also what one of his aunts calls “Frank without brakes.” Richie, the kinder of the three, lives in Brooklyn where he is in real estate.
“Richie,” Smiley tells us, “would not have said that he had many political opinions, but once the Dems put him in the race for Congressman Scheuer’s seat, his mouth opened, and opinions came out.”
Indeed. And if “Some Luck” belonged chiefly to Frank’s parents, Walter and Rosanna, and “Early Warning” to five of their six children – “Golden Age” is clearly the twins’ book. It is the best of the trilogy, in part because a reader already knows its leading men and women, but also because the book moves with the pace of history, faster and faster, even if humankind changes only outwardly.
“How your world was cast when you were young seemed not to matter at all as you aged…” muses Claire, the baby of the original Langdon offspring. “No one would ever seem as dashing and handsome to her as Frank, as kind as Joe, as beautiful as Lillian, as smart as Henry, as reassuring as her father, as strict as her mother, and, maybe for entirely coincidental socioeconomic reasons, people these days didn’t have those Greek choruses of relatives, freely offering their opinions about everything that happened.”
Those of us brought up on Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy “Parade’s End” and John Galsworthy’s multibook “The Forsyte Saga” (not to mention John Updike’s “Rabbit” novels and Philip Roth’s multiple Nathan Zuckerman titles) will relish not only the attention Smiley pays to war and its long reach into the lives of others but the familiarity bred of book after book about a single family, or character, as time goes on.
9/11, the Internet, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, economic collapse – and climate change – all figure in “Golden Age” as the Langdons experience death (both natural and unnatural) as well as a disgrace so large it obliterates the Langdons’ prominence and a murder that will seem almost symbolic in nature plus page after page of just plain living.
Smiley, bless her heart, includes a family tree before the start of “Golden Age.” She did this with the earlier books as well – not only as a means of sorting out the multiple and ever-expanding branches of the Langdon family, but as, one guesses, a way of underscoring the durability of a typical American family within the widening sweep of U.S. history.
In “Golden Age,” this includes the character of Hildegarde Andrea Bergstrom Langdon – spouse, then widow of Frank Langdon and mother to Janet Langdon Nelson as well as those nationally known twins, Michael and Richie. Over the course of three novels, “Andy” (as she is known to all and sundry) goes from a seemingly near-vacuous but “ethereal” beauty to a woman who may appear eccentric and out of touch – but apparently knows exactly what she is doing.
She is an example of Smiley’s genius at showing us the large through the small – and forcing us at the same time to see that what is small and what is large can also be a matter of individual perception. Consider Andy on the day she realizes her nest egg (of millions) has disappeared. Her first impulse is to counteract the enormity of the situation by looking for a missing string of pearls – which she finds, and only then thinks of the loss of her fortune:
“… she knew she would do nothing about the money … She was eighty-eight, she had no desires, she had found her pearls. Some abyss, perhaps, gaped around her, but it looked like a vista up in the Catskills, hills receding, orderly and green, into the distance. She could not make herself afraid of it.”
Smiley’s strengths here are multifaceted, starting with her signature wit and economy of words, her thoroughness and her grasp of subject matter -- but it is her ability to bring an entire American century to life through very different members of a single family that distinguishes this, her first trilogy.
Everyone counts, Smiley seems to be saying – and, in families as in countries, there will always be new members, ever fresh developments. Or, as Frank Langdon in his twilight years reflects as he watches young Charlie, a recently-located Langdon relative, steal the spotlight that once was Frank’s:
“His mother would have said, ‘Well, pick of the litter. No two ways about that.’”
Karen Brady is a former Buffalo News columnist.