Time Keeps on Slipping Into the Future: Jane Smiley's 'Golden Age'
Completing Smiley's final installment of The Last Hundred Years Trilogy, we feel the peculiar sadness of missing people who don’t actually exist, and must resist the impulse to wave goodbye.
Golden AgePublisher: Knopf
Length: 443 pages
Author: Jane Smiley
Publication date: 2015-10
"Do you think we’ve lived through a golden age?"
-- Janet Langdon Nelson to her Aunt Claire
Readers of Some Luck and Early Warning, the first two novels of Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years Trilogy, might wonder, as Janet does, whether her family has lived through a golden age. But in the trilogy’s final installment, Golden Age, there is no doubt that age has passed. What Smiley began in Some Luck, set in the '20s, with Walter Langdon walking his Denby, Iowa farmland while his wife Rosanna happily cooed over the infant Frank at home, concludes here a century hence, as a harsh sun beats down on a dry land.
To discuss the fate of each Langdon, their spouses, offspring, and associated characters would be an impossible undertaking, for after consulting the Langdon family tree, I counted 62 "active" characters—that is, people the reader actually "meets" over the course of three novels. This doesn’t include ancestors or those relatives seen only through other characters. All told, the cast of The Last Hundred Years Trilogy numbers, well, right around 100. Neat trick, Ms. Smiley.
Indeed, there are many neat tricks in these pages, along with inside jokes and one liners. While brevity and reviewer recollection forbid a full recounting, here is Henry Langdon encouraging his great-nephew Charlie, a potentially dyslexic 30-year-old, to read more. To this end, Henry gives Charlie young adult literature, including: "a fellow named Hinton, for kids, really."
Alas, we never learn what Charlie thinks of S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders. Or if he learns Hinton isn’t a fellow.
These occasional moments of levity do little to offset the many deaths in Golden Age. Certainly many Langdons are aged, making their deaths unsurprising. As in life, this does nothing to mitigate the pain of their passing. And Smiley’s authorial decision to kill key younger characters ranks with Stephen King’s putting Nick Andros in that closet in The Stand. (Not that we hold a grudge or anything.) Be prepared to put Golden Age down, yell at Smiley fruitlessly for a few minutes, blow your nose, and continue reading. You’ve been warned.
Smiley has never made a secret of her liberal politics. Where Some Luck and Early Warning took happy potshots at Republican politics, Golden Age, which covers the Bush presidencies, 9/11, and the Iraq War, is completely outraged. Smiley puts Richie Langdon -- half of Frank and Andy Langdon’s alarming twins -- in Congress, where he becomes a useful vantage point for acid commentary on the Middle East, fiscal misdeeds, and above all, environmental policy.
The Langdons began as an Iowa farming family, people highly attuned to the land, the weather, and how politics impact farming. In Golden Age, Smiley presses an environmental agenda no less dire than another recent trilogy: Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam. Here, Congressman Richie Langdon, along with Joe Langdon’s son Jesse, the only farmer left on the family homestead, and Riley Calhoun, Charlie’s ardently environmentalist girlfriend, take up the cause with varying levels of enthusiasm. By the novel’s conclusion, Jesse’s daughter Felicity leaves a man who calls the environment devastation surrounding them "climate change" to marry a fellow who discusses fracking over a dinner of seitan Bolognese.
Jesse Langdon, unlike his father Joe, prefers a scientific approach to farming, relying on computerized weather reports, soil-maps, and chemical weed killers: "You couldn’t farm with instincts if you were aiming at 150 bushels of corn to the acre and 45 bushels of beans."
Yet Monsanto isn’t working out as promised. The Roundup Ready Corn is making one farmer’s hogs give birth to "sacks of water, not piglets". Some weeds, increasingly resistant to the fertilizers, are flourishing. Meanwhile, a neighbor is sued for benefiting from genetically modified corn having blown into his fields, a situation Denby farmers find "eye-blinkingly crazy". (Smiley borrowed this case from the real life Monsanto suit against Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser. Schmeiser was sued for "benefiting" from Monsanto’s GMO seed blowing into his fields. After years in the courts, Schmeiser won.)
The real estate machinations Smiley investigated in 2003’s Good Faith are well in evidence here, though far less amusing. Marcus Burns, Good Faith’s slick operator, may have bilked his closest friends, but they rebounded. The same cannot be said of the Langdon family, whose fortunes suffer due to Frank and Andy’s son, Michael.
Michael’s early interest in sex, drugs, and wild parties seems tamed by marriage to California ranch heiress Loretta Perroni. As Loretta makes babies and aligns herself with the Catholic Church, Michael forgoes booze and affairs in favor of making money the ‘80s way: illegally. His involvement in the fiscal scandals of the '80s and ‘90s will lead him into trouble, but it's his family that suffers greater repercussions.
Smiley saves a goodly measure of wrath for Iraq. Jesse’s sons, Guthrie and Perky, looking flee Iowa and farming, enlist in the military. Perky is sent to Afghanistan. Guthrie is twice-deployed to Iraq. Smiley’s description of his second tour is an edgy, anxious description of life in a hellish place. Guthrie returns to Iowa permanently wary, watchful, terrified.
"Whenever there were rumors, Guthrie had discovered, most of them were true in some way, but not in the way you first imagined."
All is not heavy going. Some of Smiley’s favorite topics make appearances, including fine food and its preparation. Claire has parlayed her culinary talents into a successful party business. While attending a funeral, she ponders the catering, or lack thereof:
"Claire would have put on a better funeral -- strawberries dipped in dark chocolate, baguettes and an array of cheeses, ambrosia -- her mother’s old standby (with sliced oranges, coconut, and chunks of bananas) -- small squares of bacon-Gruyère quiche, champagne."
Lesser meals have their day, too: Riley is a preachy vegetarian who extols tofu’s virtues even as her daughter refuses to eat it. Andy’s Spartan diet of salads sends her visitors sneaking out to their cars, where they’ve cached carnivorous snacks.
Smiley has always appreciated handy men, woodworking, and well organized tool sheds. Arthur and Lillian’s son-in-law, Hugh, invests in sustainable forests and makes so much furniture that his house "overflowed with his pieces." Claire’s partner Carl is the kind of man who "lived in a workroom putting the finish on this, sanding an edge off that."
No Smiley book would be complete without horses. Here, in Smiley’s 21st adult novel, equines have finally found a space without threatening to gallop over the plot. Janet and her daughter Emily are horsewomen, while Richie and Loretta’s eldest son Chance is a rodeo rider and gifted trainer.
The only missing piece is sex. Smiley is one of our best contemporary writers in the bedroom, a skill displayed in Good Faith, Moo, and A Thousand Acres (let’s skip Ten Days In The Hills, shall we?). Yet The Last Hundred Years Trilogy, apart from a brief scene in Some Luck, is entirely PG. This isn’t a criticism. In a series containing just about everything else in the past 100 years of American history, something had to give.
Golden Age concludes soberly, both for the Langdon family and the world they -- and we -- inhabit. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to turn those final few pages. In finishing Some Luck and Early Warning, the wistfulness of conclusion was salved by the comfort of a sequel. Not this time: now, as Walter and Rosanna’s great-granddaughter drives away, we feel the peculiar sadness of missing people who don’t actually exist, and must resist the impulse to wave goodbye.