Book review: Golden Age by Jane Smiley

GREED and corruption threaten family life in the final part of the US saga – and by extension, all of America is at risk
Jane Smiley employs a huge cast of characters to tell her contemporary story. Picture: Getty ImagesJane Smiley employs a huge cast of characters to tell her contemporary story. Picture: Getty Images
Jane Smiley employs a huge cast of characters to tell her contemporary story. Picture: Getty Images

Golden Age by Jane Smiley | Mantle, 443pp, £18.99

Golden Age is the last novel in Jane Smiley’s family saga trilogy. It also offers a panoramic history of the USA from 1987 to 2019. So while looking back at the past, it also goes beyond the present. You don’t, I think, have to have read the earlier books to find much to enjoy in this one , though it helps. (Actually I missed the first one myself.) What you will, almost certainly, have to do is keep a marker to allow you to refer back to the family tree because the cast is huge, Smiley swoops from one story to another, and doesn’t trouble to re-introduce characters who may have dropped out of the narrative for a long time. She demands a good deal from her readers, but those who persevere will find the effort rewarding.

The Langdons were originally a farming family in Iowa. The farm is still there, still run by a Langdon, though in very different circumstances and conditions. One of the public themes of the novel is climate change and the consequent degradation of the land, partly on account also of intensive farming and monoculture. The novel is full of extreme weather – droughts, floods, gales, heavy snowfalls, typhoons.

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The novel is also about money, free-market capitalism, financial and political corruption. Some of the family are very rich – huge sums, millions, billions, of dollars are bandied about. A few have opted out for a simpler life. Some rear horses; one of the young Langdons becomes a show-cowboy roping steers. Smiley evidently loves horses and writes very well about them.

At the centre of the narrative are the twins, Michael and Richie. Michael was a terror and a bully in volume two; he’s an investment banker now, unscrupulous, deceitful, crooked, a formidable, not entirely unlikeable personality, one of the best things in the novel. The milder, fundamentally decent Richie becomes a Democratic congressman, without quite knowing why or what he should do. Smiley is good on Washington too. She blends the public and private admirably. One young Langdon, Guthrie, the farmer’s son, volunteers for the Army, serves in Iraq, horribly, and suffers afterwards from post-traumatic stress.

There’s an early family re-union when Charlie, son of the beloved Tim (killed in Vietnam in the second book) and himself given up for adoption by his unmarried mother is located and introduced to his relatives. Charlie is a charmer, if rather a naïve and aimless one. He will marry a fanatical climate change activist. His charm is repeatedly emphasised. Everybody takes to him. You are likely to fear that things will turn out badly for him.

Smiley gets everything in the public life of the USA into the novel: Presidential elections – Michael is very funny about Mitt Romney – 9/11 of course, the rise and fall of the stock market, the banking crash, the criminality of finance. Smiley is a glutton for information; crop prices, land prices, house prices, the booms and busts of markets. Readers 
may be, occasionally, bemused, battered by the flood of facts and opinion, but the author keeps her head and drives her narrative forward, compellingly.

It’s a hybrid novel. A lot of the family stuff is warm, engaging, even cosy. Smiley is good on food, meals, clothes, interior decoration, landscapes, the to and fro of daily life. On the other hand it’s a pessimistic and angry novel. The decencies of private life, lovingly dwelled on, are being threatened, even swamped, by the dishonesty of public life and the indifference of the money and power to the degradation of the environment. The USA has become what Disraeli called the England of the 1840s: two nations, the Rich and the Poor. Both may be dangerous. The Rich are greedy and corrupt; guilty of financial scams with money stolen and lodged in offshore accounts, and also of legal chicanery. The deprived Poor may turn vicious . One character will be robbed for a pitiful sum and murdered by a bunch of feral boys.

The title is ironic. This is no golden age, though it may be another gilded one. The American Dream has turn ed into a nightmare. It is all very terrible, but if you immerse yourself in this packed but rambling piece of fact-based fiction, it is also very enjoyable.