Book review: Early Warning by Jane Smiley - American chronicle
by Jane Smiley
When Some Luck, the first volume in Jane Smiley's monumental Last Hundred Years trilogy, opened in 1923 on the Iowan farmstead where Walter Langdon lived with his wife, Rosanna, and young son Frank, the accents of their immigrant ancestors were still audible.
On the horizon, only the lights of Des Moines and Chicago could be seen; the great metropolises of San Francisco, Washington and New York were just a distant glow. If Some Luck scouted the territory and laid the groundwork, Early Warning, which covers the second half of the 20th century, looks set to do the heavy lifting.
The first volume ended with Walter's death in 1953; Early Warning opens with his funeral. The message is already clear. This is not a narrative of great shifts and leaps; it's about continuity: at Walter's funeral, like a good matriarch (or the "switching station" Frank's sister Lillian feels herself to be, handing the baton from one family member to another), Smiley gathers the Langdons in and counts heads.
Frank, the second world war sniper turned ruthless businessman and occasional CIA operative, is the oldest of Walter and Rosanna's five surviving children - the others are Joe, Henry and Claire - with a daughter and newborn twins of his own.
There are eight grandchildren at the novel's outset; by its close, Rosanna and Walter's descendants will number 19, and counting.
Refracted through the multiple narrative viewpoints of Frank, his siblings and a further handful of descendants, the decades documented in Early Warning herald vast change for the US. They contain the murders of presidents, seismic movement in the prices of oil and real estate, the struggle for civil rights, the summer of love and the taking of hostages in Iran, but we apprehend them only as one Langdon or another has occasion to walk near to the action.
Still living on the land where he was born, Joe watches the rise and fall of wheat, oil and real estate prices, while in Chicago, Henry tiptoes out of the closet and encounters the Aids crisis.
Her cast is big, and growing all the time, but Smiley has a remarkable grip on her characters, from the major players such as Frank's estranged daughter, Janet, to Claire's control-freak of a husband, Paul, and Lillian's shy son, Dean, who barely utters a word until he breaks down at her funeral.
Comparisons have already been made with John Updike's towering Rabbit tetralogy, and both writers have an extraordinary ability to define what it is to be American at the most intimate level. But where Updike is the consummate stylist, Smiley speaks more plainly; where he is cool, she is warm. She is also very funny (when Arthur says that Frank wears his heart on his sleeve and Lillian says she has never noticed it, he responds drily: "It's a very small heart") and too finely intelligent to stoop to folksiness.
In fact, what Smiley feels most like here, for her faultless skill in bringing a wide cast so vividly into being that we would know them anywhere, for the remarkable intensity of her feeling for territory and landscape and her combination of impatient intellect, emotional perspicacity and unfailing humanity, is America's Tolstoy.
The first two volumes of this trilogy have been so complex and nourishing that the comparison seems justified, and the third instalment can't come soon enough.