Review: Jane Smiley’s ‘Early Warning’

Early Warning. Jane Smiley. Knopf. 496 pages. $26.95.
Early Warning. Jane Smiley. Knopf. 496 pages. $26.95.

The second installment in Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy opens with an ending and ends with a beginning, and in between the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist continues her intimate and exceptional exploration of American history through the eyes of an Iowa family.

Author of 14 works of fiction, five books for young adults and five works of nonfiction, Smiley is swinging for the fences here, elegantly tucking a busy century into three volumes full of life, humor and sharp observation. The first book in the series, Some Luck, ranged from 1920 to 1953, introducing Walter and Rosanna Langdon and their five children. The sweeping narrative encompassed the Great Depression and World War II as well as smaller family milestones, ending on dueling notes of post-war optimism and grave personal loss.

Equally dynamic, Early Warning picks up where Smiley left off — at a funeral — and barrels ahead through 1986, bumping up against the Cold War, Vietnam, the counterculture revolution and other historic touchstones.

The Langdons have long operated on the sensible farmer’s principle that “many things could go wrong,” not in a pessimistic way but in a practical one, and in Early Warning many things do go wrong, as they would for any family. There are other funerals and losses, tragedies and near misses and triumphs.

Walter and Rosanna’s children — Frank, Joe, Lillian, Henry and Claire — step firmly into the spotlight. Three strike out for other cities. Four marry and have children of their own. Adultery and secrets plague some of the marriages; affection and habit fuses other couples together.

This Langdon baby boom — which mirrors the real one — has increased the number of characters to what could be an unwieldy level, and readers can be forgiven if at first they can’t remember to which parents Tina or Dean or Carlie belong. But don’t be put off by the numbers: Smiley quickly corrals her large cast, deploying them with care and painting each important character with unique tics and wrinkles. She also includes a helpful family tree, and don’t feel bad if you have to doublecheck it more than once.

The oldest brothers, Frank and Joe, are more or less the same. Frank, an unapologetic philanderer, dabbles in covert foreign affairs and makes a fortune in business. Joe remains on the family farm, marrying his neighbor Lois and carrying on his father’s way of life. Sister Lillian — still married to national security bigwig Arthur, for whom Frank has done a number of top secret favors — is the mother of a large brood, including Tim, whose destiny will lead him to Vietnam.

Bookish Henry never marries and harbors a secret, one that he settles into more easily over time. Claire, the baby of the family and her father’s favorite child, grows from a shy farm girl whose only conversational gambits involve pigs — “pigs look for their favorite foods in the slop. ... push the orange rinds to one side and eat the potato skins first. ... she had even seen a pig eat a lemon rind and wrinkle its nose” — to a woman brave enough to assess her bad choices and make a change.

In some ways Early Warning feels slightly less organic than Some Luck; Smiley adds a few brushes with famous people, which can feel a bit artificial. One character has a brief fling with Beat hero Neal Cassady; National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy shows up uninvited at Lillian’s house. Frank’s daughter Janet joins the Rev. Jim Jones’ People’s Temple in San Francisco (her socialist aunt takes one look at Jones and “she knew what she was seeing — Joe Stalin from Indiana, the sort of fellow who sucked down a few ideas and then vomited them forth, now irreparably contaminated by the poisons of his very own body”).

But in the end, the absorbing push and pull of the Langdons drive Early Warning. They’re so tricky, these family connections. The father of three, Frank finds himself most admiring his nephew Jesse, Joe’s son, a farmer like his father. “[H]e was worth more than either of the twins — Frank did not look forward to the time when Michael, anyway, and maybe Richie, found that out.” Still, despite the book’s sorrows, Smiley ends on a lovely note of optimism. Many things can go wrong, yes, but we live fully in the moments that are right.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.