Saturday, May 23, 2015

"Early Warning," by Jane Smiley

When I wrote (11/4/14) about Jane Smiley’s novel “Some Luck,” which was identified as the first novel in a projected trilogy, “The Last Hundred Years,” I optimistically hoped for the second installment in two or three years. Smiley must have been writing the second novel while the first one was in production, because -- a happy surprise -- it has already been published. It is titled “Early Warning” (Knopf, 2015), and I have just devoured this 476-page masterpiece, a fitting successor to “Some Luck.” This second novel about the Langdon family, whose story originated on an Iowa farm, covers the years 1953-1986. Walter Langdon, the father of the original family, has died, and the focus moves even more than in “Some Luck” to his five children and their own spouses and children, although the oldest child, Frank, is now less central to the story than he was in the first novel. “Early Warning” is even more crammed with characters than was “Some Luck,” and even though I had read the first novel just a few months before the second, I had to consult the very useful, even essential, family tree diagram (provided in the front matter) frequently, especially at first but even throughout my reading of the novel. This novel moves away from Iowa to a greater extent than the first one did, as all of the now grown children except one move elsewhere: to New York, D.C., California, and other places. As in “Some Luck,” the family and all its members are the focus, but the backdrop of national and international events is also important. The characters are affected by, and participate in, the problems of the economy, farming, the Cold War, politics, the government, the CIA, and more. Smiley does not overtly pronounce judgments on the behavior of the characters, even those involved in rather shady government/CIA-related policies and actions, but the portrayals are vivid and readers can make their own judgments. I can’t possibly summarize the lives of all these characters; again, there are romances, marriages, affairs, births, sibling rivalries, problems with alcohol, careers, career changes, momentous decisions, and so much more. This is a sweeping portrayal of a family and of a country, and it is fascinating, absorbing, and masterfully done. I can’t wait for the third installment, covering the third 33-year period, of the Last Hundred Years trilogy. The only thing that worries me is that another 33 years would take us up to 2019 or 2020, and I do not want to wait that long for the next novel. I don’t know how Jane Smiley is planning to handle that, given that these first two novels came out within a year of each other, but I wait with bated breath to learn the answer. Meanwhile, I think I can say without hyperbole that this trilogy is a masterpiece, one that will be long read by those who both appreciate great literature and want to learn about the essence of life of the United States in the 20th century and beyond.

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