The question comes late in the final installment of Jane Smiley’s “Last Hundred Years” trilogy, after a funeral, in the dark of a hotel room: “Do you think that we’ve lived through a golden age?”
“Why would we think that? No one thinks that,” is the immediate reply, from a sleepy aunt who doesn’t care to ponder the mysteries of fate and history. But Smiley’s answer in the greater context of this sprawling, multigenerational American saga is more thoughtful, more complex. In “Golden Age,” she wraps up what she launched in “Some Luck” and “Early Warning”: the ambitious, absorbing story of the Langdons, an Iowa farm family with branches stretching to California and Chicago and New Jersey and Washington, D.C.
“Golden Age” opens in 1987, encompassing the end of the Reagan era and running through the Bush, Clinton and Obama years and beyond. It ends in a 2019 fraught with problems we can see looming even now. Using the personal as a way of examining the political, the historical and the inevitable, Smiley builds an unsparing portrait of a country seared by change and tempered by humanity, a place that tests and tries her Langdons but never quite breaks them.
Though it is meticulously researched and rich in detail, the novel – like its predecessors – doesn’t feel plotted out (though it clearly is). Instead, “Golden Age” flows with the nuances and rhythms of everyday life, with time passing steadily, through births and deaths, triumph and tragedy. Smiley’s prose is precise but spare; she doesn’t need histrionics to wring your heart or make it sing. She only needs a few simple sentences.
The cast of characters has grown even larger; this time consulting the massive family tree Smiley provides is an absolute necessity. But the book’s structure, with each chapter covering a year, allows her to hone in on the historical events – 9/11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, financial collapse – through the eyes of people about whom we care, and she builds unexpected joys and alliances into their remarkable and ordinary lives.
The second generation of Langdons – Frank, Joe, Henry and Claire – has grown into late middle age. Frank, always aloof, reconnects emotionally and physically with his wife Andy, whose ethereal qualities make her easy to underestimate (you would be foolish to do so). Their grown daughter Janet, who loathes her father, finds solace in her children and horses, and their twin sons Michael and Richie are still warring in different ways. Michael (in finance) and Richie (a Democratic senator) allow Smiley plenty of room to incisively explore both sides of the increasingly bitter American political divide.
It falls to sunny Charlie, grandson of Arthur and Lillian, to unite the far-flung family members, and he manages at times. But a strong streak of pessimism runs through “Golden Age”: Jesse’s wife Jen may believe that “everything would work out because it always had,” but Smiley does not. Among her fears: economic inequality; climate change; violence; racism; radical changes in America’s food sources. Smiley lays out the dangers unemotionally, daring us to ignore them at our own peril.
But “Golden Age” is not a polemic, nor is it entirely downbeat. Claire, in that hotel room more fully considering Janet’s question about a golden age, puts our existence into perspective: “(S)he did think right then that all golden ages, perhaps, were discovered within. No one would ever know that her father, Carl, the endless Iowa horizon, a pan of shortbread emerging from the oven, and her grandchildren laughing in the next room had indeed made her life a golden age.” In the wild, unpredictable, precious ride of life, we can still find moments to savor.
By Jane Smiley
Knopf, 384 pages