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Author Jane Smiley's 'Golden Age' brings an epic tale to a solemnly fine end

Author Jane Smiley's 'Golden Age' brings an epic tale to a solemnly fine end
"Golden Age" and author Jane Smiley. (From left: Peguin Random House; Derek Shapton)

With "Golden Age," Jane Smiley wraps up her sweeping Last Hundred Years trilogy on a sobering note. This cumulatively absorbing American epic, as expansive and ambitious in its way as Balzac's "Human Comedy" and John Updike's "Rabbit" quartet, began on Rosanna and Walter Langdon's Iowa farm in 1920 with "Some Luck." "Early Warning" followed their offspring as they spread across the country through the middle years of the 20th century.

The final installment, which is definitely part of a series rather than a stand-alone novel, takes us from 1987 to a rather bleak near-future in 2019, when the country's soul is as depleted as its soil. "Golden Age" continues Smiley's year-by-year march through history as she tracks both societal and personal changes. Once again, references to historical benchmarks — including 9/11, both Iraq wars, the financial crisis of 2007-08, and Hurricane Sandy — anchor the novel in time. But what captivates are the unfolding lives of a panoply of characters who share DNA and a fraying connection to their agrarian roots.

Breeding and hybridization — of crops, farm animals and people — are recurrent themes. "Families that had scattered, like the Langdons, could end up looking and acting like alien species of a single genus," Smiley writes. In the nature-versus-nurture debate humming through all three volumes, Smiley repeatedly leans toward nature. She maintains that children are born with their distinct personalities; witness Walter and Rosanna's headstrong firstborn, Frank, and his equally hard-driving twin son, Michael.

But in this volume, nature takes center stage in a new way, as concerns about climate change grow more urgent in a world whose well-being and food supply are increasingly challenged by violent extremes in weather.

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Just as "Early Warning" begins with a large family gathering — the funeral of patriarch Walter Langdon, who died at the end of "Some Luck" — "Golden Age" opens with a reunion to introduce 21-year-old Charlie Wickett, the surprise family member discovered at the end of "Early Warning." It's a clever way to reintroduce readers to the often confusing, ever-expanding cast. As a helpful family tree makes clear, these people are breeders: With the exception of just one of Rosanna and Walter's five surviving offspring — their professorial, homosexual son — all have multiple children. (And in one of several happy late-life renaissances, he later adopts a daughter.)

Charlie, we're reminded, was given up for adoption as an infant by his mother; he was the result of a fling she had with Tim Manning, Walter and Rosanna's grandson, who was killed in Vietnam. Described as "an example of exceptional breeding — strong, healthy, and good-looking, resilient, canny if not smart," Charlie marries a bright environmentalist so dismayed by the state of the world that she doesn't want children. Yet, in one of multiple recurrent patterns that emerge in Smiley's sprawling saga, Charlie's destiny mirrors his father's in ways I'll leave for the reader to discover.

Smiley's plot is a marvel of intricacy that's full of surprises. Understandably, with as many characters as a Russian epic, some remain little more than named leaves on the family tree. Several themes echo through the generations, including nasty sibling rivalries that get passed along from Frank and Joe Langdon to their sons with tragic consequences, and critical insider views of Washington politics courtesy of a CIA operative in "Early Warning" and a Democratic congressman from Brooklyn (Frank's gentler twin son, Richie) in "Golden Age." Richie comes to lambaste the House of Representatives as "a swamp of dirty money, nefarious influence, and continuous arm-twisting."

A central focus of the Last Hundred Years trilogy is the changing landscape of farming in America, with industrialization and big agriculture subsuming small family farms. This is a subject Smiley also addressed in "A Thousand Acres," her 1992 Pulitzer Prize winner. Although most of the Langdons left their Iowa farm during the post-World War II migration to the cities, Smiley checks in repeatedly on those who remain. It isn't an easy life. With the financial help of his uncle Frank, Joe's son Jesse — representing a third generation — manages to hang on. Smiley nails the agricultural details, including the relentless stresses of weather and finances, and the unbelievably cruel mechanics of foreclosure. The outlook is further darkened by climate change and the depletion of the soil.

Another realm in which Smiley's long-haul narrative sees no cause for celebration is in global peace. War, alas, once again factors into the trilogy when Jesse's sons, eager to avoid a life of farming, enlist in the Army and Marines. Where the first two volumes took us behind battle lines in World War II and Vietnam, "Golden Age" vividly captures the unique terrors of fighting in Iraq.

Compared with earlier installments, "Golden Age" is filled with more deaths than births. Many show nature taking its course, but others are more jarring, revealing Smiley's hand as authorial god of this universe she's created. Yet her view of old age and, especially, old love, are unexpectedly sweet. Even cold, detached characters like Frank and his strange but wonderfully ethereal and lucid wife mellow and reconnect.

Smiley's trilogy demonstrates repeatedly that most lives are a combination of improvisation and serendipity, good luck and bad. With issues such as corruption, climate disruption and racism blighting the country's horizon, her characters wonder if the golden age is behind them. But Claire, the last surviving child of Walter and Rosanna, reflects on the bright spots of her 80 years, including "the endless Iowa horizon, a pan of shortbread emerging from the oven, and her grandchildren laughing in the next room." It makes her realize that "all golden ages, perhaps, were discovered within."

While Smiley could keep spinning her saga down the generations — upping the multicultural, same-sex marriage and transgender factors, perhaps, to reflect changing demographics — "Golden Age" provides a satisfying if solemn finale to a monumental portrait of an American family and an American century.

McAlpin reviews books regularly for the Los Angeles Times, NPR.org, Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle. She also writes the Reading in Common column for the Barnes & Noble Review.

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Golden Age
A Novel

Jane Smiley
Alfred A. Knopf; 441 pages; $26.95

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