Clocking in at almost 500 pages, “Early Warning,” the middle volume of Jane Smiley’s three-volume saga of the Langdon family, is a good reminder of our culture’s conflicted tastes. In an era of tweets, texts and flash fiction, the big, juicy novel is ascendant again. Calling the projected work three volumes rather than a trilogy may seem like a fine distinction, but “Early Warning” makes clear from its opening that it’s a continuation of last year’s “Some Luck,” and, as its title suggests, it foreshadows even more disasters, outrages and triumphs to come in the lives of Walter and Rosanna Langdon’s descendants.
The tale of the Langdons unfolds over 100 years, with a single chapter devoted to each year. “Some Luck” opens in 1920, “Early Warning” in 1953, a neat division of postwar eras that will pick up in 1987 in the final volume, after the Vietnam War has done its damage to and reaped its profits for the Langdons. If politics and wars are as defining here as they are in history textbooks, Smiley enriches the “great events” model of American history with her equal attention to cultural history, and she makes the lives of obscure women, men and children as important as the lives of Great Men. As in the first volume, some of the best scenes are told from the slightly surreal perspectives of toddlers.
The sheer profusion of characters and scenes is almost overwhelming as this volume opens. The reader is still struggling to remember the second generation, while new generations insistently push themselves into the world. But Smiley pulls off a wondrous trick here. Like the 19th-century novels she invokes, her stories revel in coincidences, repetitions, revelations and elaborations of events and themes. She plucks from a crowded gathering of relatives and, one by one, develops lives that are rich, mysterious and constantly changing.
Claire, Walter and Rosanna’s youngest and always overlooked child, marries a boring doctor, rebels, embraces all the literature she’s never had a chance to read and grows into an uncommon understanding of her control-freak ex-husband. Her bullying older brother Frank — now a weapons profiteer and philanderer — rescues their brother Joe from losing the farm. Frank’s daughter Janet despises him, not least because of his role in a war that has taken her beloved cousin, and goes seeking another father figure in the Peoples Temple, where Jim Jones’s road to cyanide-laced Kool-Aid is paved with racial tolerance and communalism.
The big-deal real-life events are generally interwoven in subtle patterns, although Smiley occasionally inserts a piece of information awkwardly: “As Arthur invariably pointed out when they went for a drive, the Land Ordinance of 1785 was way too late for Virginia.” Possibly I’m missing the joke; Smiley’s wit is dry — very dry. When it breaks through to raucousness, the impact is all the giddier, as when Frank’s son attempts to enlist in the Vietnam War — only to find his induction bus overrun by Yippies — or when Frank’s wife invents wacky dreams for her many psychoanalysts.
The plainness of the language in “Some Luck” was hard to stick with at first: Big realist novels often require readers to endure a stark telling of one thing, then another. But the Midwestern intonations of “Early Warning” shift subtly as Smiley narrates the Langdons’ moves to the East and West coasts, their educations, their travels to Europe, their rapid ascension into wealth and the inclusion of other ethnicities and sexual preferences into their midst. As their world expands, the clipped straightforwardness of events becomes almost mesmerizing, the reading compulsive and the direct language a guard against sentimentality. By the time we arrive for a last visit with Rosanna’s lefty older sister, we are almost prepared for the line “Eloise understood politics less and less,” but we don’t see her devotion to the TV cop show “Hill Street Blues” coming. By then, the surprises in “Early Warning” have become irresistible.
Sayers, a professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of six novels, most recently “The Powers.”