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Disco, AIDS and Nuclear War Permeate Jane Smiley's 'Early Warning'

Smiley doesn’t overlook defining political moments in part two of her trilogy, including the 1981 presidential election of Ronald Reagan and the ensuing sociopolitical shift rightward.

Early Warning

Publisher: Knopf
Length: 476 pages
Author: Jane Smiley
Price: $26.95
Format: hardcover
Publication date: 2015-07

As the second installment of Jane Smiley’s Langdon family trilogy begins, the family gathers in Denby, Iowa for patriarch Walter Langdon’s funeral. The five Langdon children are grown, with families of their own. In Early Warning they take the narrative’s center stage.

Only Joe, second eldest, has become a farmer, remaining in Denby and marrying local girl Lois Frederick. Joe is content, even if marriage to Lois is more about practicality than affection. Lois is a good mother and a fine cook. When she finds religion, Joe does his best to overlook it.

Frank, Lillian, Henry, and Claire have scattered around the country. Frank, the oldest, is a natural liar with a near-sociopathic distrust of others. His brother-in-law, Arthur Manning, a CIA employee, taps his chill demeanor for the occasional Cold War op.

Frank becomes a wealthy man whose marriage and domestic life are empty. He ignores his wife, Andy, a situation she tries addressing with analysis before turning to alcohol. Both are ill-suited to parenthood. When their daughter Janet becomes involved with a charismatic preacher named Jim Jones, neither notice the danger. Their twins, Richie and Michael, are dully brutish boys in constant trouble.

The bookish, organized, and neurotically neat Henry remains a lifelong bachelor. Channeling his precise nature into an English professorship, Henry crafts a fastidious existence incapable of admitting true happiness.

Claire, the youngest, is miserable. Husband Paul Darnell, an ear, nose and throat specialist, is: "scowling, abrupt, and from Philadelphia."

Hypercritical, nitpicking, and mean, Paul finds fault with everyone. The children must be slathered with sunblock. A dog is unthinkable. Claire must cook with margarine, not butter. When Rosanna breaks her foot, she stays with Claire and Paul during her recovery. From her room off the kitchen, she listens as Paul berates her daughter:

These eggs are overdone. Did you boil them by the timer? Are you sure? Oh, I’ll eat them anyway. Don’t worry about it. It’s fine. I’ll just have toast. The underside of the toast is too dark. Just one more piece, and watch it this time. Only a little butter. Yes, that’s enough. Well, just a smidgen more. I guess I’m not hungry after all.

Only Lillian, adored daughter and sister, finds happiness as the adored wife of Arthur Manning. Sweet-tempered and stoic, Lillian is "the switching station, the spot where information flowed to and from."

Alas, marital happiness doesn’t mean a perfect life. Arthur’s work exacts a terrible psychological toll while offering readers a view of historically defining political moments. From the Cuban Missile Crisis to upheavals in the Middle East, from Viet Nam to the Iran Hostage Crisis, Arthur’s job gives him the insider’s seat to disaster. The privilege nearly destroys him.

Smiley doesn’t overlook another defining political moment: the 1981 presidential election of Ronald Reagan and the ensuing sociopolitical shift rightward. When Michael marries Loretta, the daughter of wealthy, right-wing Republicans, his twin, Richie, ignores the onslaught of pro-Reagan lectures. His fiancée, Ivy, a Jewish New Yorker, is less tolerant. "He’s just a mouthpiece for big business, like when he was on that show and then he was a governor! My God, he was awful in California."

Richie’s great-aunt Eloise, formerly a Communist, shares Ivy’s outrage. Eloise: "hated Reagan. She had been suspicious of Reagan from the beginning. But more than Reagan, she hated his advisers: James Watt, made secretary of the interior specifically to destroy that very interior. She hated Anne Gorsuch, and she hated Rita Lavelle (now, thank goodness, fired)."

Smiley casts a cold eye on religion even as her characters seek the church. In Barn Blind, her first novel, Axel Karlson cannot understand wife Kate’s sudden conversion to Catholicism. The controlling Robert of Good Will is horrified by wife Liz’s joyful description of being saved. In Moo, the uptight Nils Harstad proposes marriage to a younger, poorer member of his congregation, the long-suffering Marly Hellmich. In Some Luck, Rosanna Langdon drags the family to a Billy Sunday revival. In Early Warning, Joe abides Lois’s Christianity until a fellow farmer commits suicide. At church, the pastor preaches for half an hour before mentioning the death.

"You will have heard, my friends in Jesus, of a certain event. I almost said 'sad' event, but I stopped myself. I put before you that I myself do not know if this is sad event or not a sad event. How we think of this event depends on how we think of the Lord, on whether we truly believe in his mercy and his love. "

Early Warning concludes in 1986, with a second generation of Langdons aging, heading offstage to make room for their children. They take with them the rise and fall of disco, the beginnings of AIDS, the terror of nuclear war. There is a sad grandeur to this, for the novel engrosses us. We fall for the Langdons as the pages turn, their lives passing with terrible speed as the new generation waits impatiently for their turn in the sun.

Take consolation in Golden Age, the trilogy’s final installment, arriving in October (Smiley is certain to have a field day with Presidents Bush). And don’t forget the solace of rereading, for novels may take liberties with lives, speeding them along, but characters, unlike their creators, are immortal.


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