The constant nightmare for those who grew up during the Cold War is voiced through the anxieties of a key character in Jane Smiley's new novel, Early Warning. When Andy Langdon is asked by her therapist to say five words that come instantly to mind, her first two are 'fallout' and 'contamination'. Imaginary mushroom clouds hover in her apocalyptic visions, the acronym DEW (the Distant Early Warning Line) is stuck in her brain.
It is 1962, and while the Cuban Missile crisis dominates world news, history is kept off stage, serving only as background context for the lives and loves of Smiley's fictional family. This is the second book in the author's Last Hundred Years trilogy, chronicling what she describes as "a particular family whose members consider themselves ordinary".
Smiley's people are Iowan farmers, the Langdons, whose story ran from 1920-1953 in the first novel, Some Luck. The second takes in 33 chapters from the years 1953-1986, or as the 'commie-aunt Eloise' - whose politics were learned from books, never activism - had it, from "the death of old Joe" to the era of Reagan, the "born-again union-buster".
Readers new to the trilogy won't have to have read the first novel to become engrossed in this sequel; while the first chapter of Early Warning is daunting with its introduction of all of the clan at once for the funeral of the patriarch Walter, a few flicks back to the family tree at the front brings us up to speed with the characters. One of the main protagonists is Andy's cheating husband, Frank Langdon, former WWII army sniper, now turned dubious business mogul by way of substantial back-handers from the CIA's dirty tricks department.
In one of two exceptions in the book where a character is placed right in the action of historic events, Frank walks out of The Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles on the evening of June 5, 1968 and crosses the path of Bobby Kennedy's assassin walking in. A year earlier, Frank's teenage daughter Janny, politically opposed to him in the way nature has of paying parents back, finds herself marching right behind Dr Martin Luther King and Dr Spock at a massive anti-war demo in New York. The writing is witty and wise; sentimentality is kept on a low register. When Lillian's boy, "the son that had escaped her long ago" is drafted in 1966, his last letter home from Vietnam arrives after the telegram and comes "smelling faintly of sandalwood".
Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for A Thousand Acres, her modern tragedy with echoes of King Lear. And while we start back on an Iowan farm for the new trilogy, her literary range extends beyond tales from the American heartland. She has written everything from a detective novel to a short biography of Dickens - the writer she reveres. And it's her Dickensian trait of focussing on the minutiae of the everyday in passages that will have the impatient reader skipping a paragraph or two to get back to a character's progression.
But for this author, defining what it was to be an American during those Cold War years necessitates weaving her third-person narrative through her characters' innermost thoughts as well as actions. Readers who enjoy a Big American Novel will relish this level of detail, while a familiar note will echo for fans of the 60s set TV series Mad Men: secretive charmer Frank Langdon and his borderline neurotic wife Andy are Don and Betty Draper to a T.
Fiction: Early Warning
Mantle, ccc, 400 pages, hbk, €20.99