What happens in the middle-American farm town of Denby, Iowa? Not much.
In Jane Smiley’s 14 previous adult novels, five nonfiction books and five young adult novels, she demonstrated the gifts that earned her a Pulitzer (and more recently, a spot on the National Book Award long list) and keeps her legions of fans jonesing for her next book. Smiley is a master storyteller, with a penchant for turning archetypal allegories into seemingly straightforward, contemporary narratives. Her 1992 Pulitzer-winning “Thousand Acres” was a modernized reimagining of Shakespeare’s “King Lear”; her 2003 satire of real estate rip-offs, “Good Faith,” evoked the would-be big deals of the hapless Willy Loman.
Smiley is that rare three-fer: meticulous historian, intelligent humorist and seasoned literary novelist. While writing her 1988 saga, “The Greenlanders,” she manifested all of those traits: She wore a Viking headdress and moose coat to her desk each day to help her channel her characters’ lives and times.
But what makes a Smiley novel identifiably and deliciously hers alone is a unique brand of impassioned critical patriotism. Each of her best books is a detailed study of a particular facet, demographic and era of American life; in each she makes us see, in the kindest, gentlest way, that we’re a lot more wonderful and a lot more screwed up — as a nation, as a people, as families, as individuals — than we think we are.
“Some Luck” is true to form. Sweeping and detailed, the novel simultaneously miniaturizes and contextualizes three decades of American history by zooming in on one multi-generational Midwestern farm family. Starting small, Smiley pulls the camera way, way back, firmly positioning the Langdons center stage on the national and the international scene.
A lot happens during those 30 years to the Langdons and to the world. Five children are born — each, thanks to Smiley’s virtuosity, profoundly distinct from the others. A Langdon toddler dies. The Depression ravages milk prices, crops and psyches, sparking suicidal thoughts in one family member, a suicide in another.
Barely recovered from the first Great War, the Western World and the Langdons stumble into the Second. Socialism rises at home and abroad; Aunt Eloise becomes a Trotskyite; Frank, the eldest, most difficult child, becomes the first to go to college; the sweetest, most sensitive son commits his future to the family farm.
In this, Smiley’s most commanding novel yet, the medium matches the message. Births and deaths, triumphs and tragedies are rendered in a flat, matter-of-fact affect that mirrors the Midwestern landscape, language and temperament.
The low, quiet hum of the narrative voice provides a contrast medium for the family’s inevitable, understated crises, each of which serves to connect the non-native reader to Smiley’s seemingly inscrutable characters: “If you had told Rosanna that having Henry the way she did would have tossed her down such a deep, dark tunnel as it seemed to have when she looked back on it from, say, mid-January, she would not have believed you.”
“If you’d asked Walter how many things about the now mercifully passed year of 1930 he’d found shocking,” Smiley writes elsewhere, “he would have said that nothing shocked him, but that was not true and he knew it. ... For example, he had been shocked when his corn yield turned out to be thirty-five bushels an acre — the crop had looked so bad that he had expected it to be lower, more like thirty, or less.”
It’s only in adulthood, encountering more uneven terrain, that the younger Langdons come to see that theirs is not the only way to be.
“How can God make that happen?” Frank’s college girlfriend wails at the sudden death of a friend. “Frank said nothing, but tightened his arms around her. On a farm, you knew that you could die from anything, or you could survive anything. ‘Why’ was a question that his relatives never asked — they just told the stories, clucked, shook their heads.”
“Some Luck” is the first in a trilogy to be called “The Last Hundred Years.” Like Smiley herself, the project is ambitious and coyly clever: Her intention, she says, is to cover 100 years of Langdon family life in 100 chapters, starting with the 34 contained in Book One. Although the first 50 pages are slow slogging, giving the reader reason to wonder whether the Langdons are interesting enough to sustain one book, let alone three, the rolling out of all those life events, big and small, have a cumulative, thought-provoking effect.
By the end, the attachment to the Langdons is enough to make the reader count down the days to Book Two, as the initial question — “Is this all there is?” — is replaced by the satisfying revelation that a day, a year, a generation is made of moments whose significance becomes clear only with the passage of time.
Maran is the author of several books, including the forthcoming “Why We Write About Ourselves.”
By Jane Smiley
Alfred A. Knopf: 416 pp, $26.95