Some Luck

By Jane Smiley

Alfred A. Knopf - New York | 2014 | 395 pages | $26.95

Reviewed by Jan Alexander

The Magnificent Langdons

Some excellent news about 2015: in late April we will see the release of Early Warning, Volume II in Jane Smiley’s saga of the Langdons, an Iowa farm family, through a century of monumental changes in America, collectively titled The Last Hundred Years, and by the end of the year Volume III will be out.

The first volume, Some Luck, left Walter and Rosanna Langdon’s children on a cliffhanger—a psychological cliffhanger, that is, in the sense that their lives as adults were just beginning, and as a reader you come to understand the complications of their lives better than they do themselves.

Will Frank Langdon, the oldest and a handsome daredevil last seen stuck in suburbia circa 1953, find a place for himself as America grows fat and complacent?

How will neglected Claire, the youngest, get through the loss of her beloved father? The surviving children between Frank and Claire, chronologically, are Joe, who is staying in Iowa and becoming a scientifically inclined farmer; Lillian, who has married the half-sinister, half-doofus Arthur and hasn’t fully figured out that he’s embroiled with the cold-war-era CIA; and Henry, the literary scholar who has just fallen in love with his first cousin, a half-Jewish girl brought up as a Communist.

The drama, in spite of all that happens as the 20th century unfolds, is mostly a matter of drama from the interior, a testimony to Smiley’s intricate portraits of her cast of personalities.  Some Luck flings the oldsters right out of a world of plowhorses to the age of the automobile, each chapter encompassing one year, starting with 1920.

As the first chapter begins, 25-year-old Walter Langdon has come home from the Great War and married the beautiful Rosanna Vogel, who comes from a farm about a mile down the road, but a different world seeing as how her people are Catholic and speak German.

Each volume of the trilogy is to cover 33 years. I’m not the first to note that the structure, like The Divine Comedy, is a trilogy of 33 cantos each (for Dante, one extra in the form of the introduction). But for the Langdons, if there is a heaven, a hell and a purgatory they’re all interwoven, a matter of bountiful harvests, brand new Fords, drought, the Depression, fatal accidents, falling in love, the attack on Pearl Harbor, Germany’s surrender, a bumper crop of post-War babies.

In 1920 the newlyweds Walter and Rosanna also have a new baby, Frank. The baby has Rosanna’s looks. Walter thinks he’s seen such perfection reproduced in some lines of cows. “The calves looked stamped out by a cookie cutter.” Walter is clear about how his genetic code will play out in his adult life: “Walter thought he probably grew too much oats , but if you were a Langdon and your mother was a Chick, then it was natural to plant oats, eat oats, feed oats, bed oat straw and most of all, enjoy all the stages of oat cultivation.”

His parents and Rosanna’s parents, all farmers, search each newborn and attribute such characteristics as blue eyes and sweet-natured temperaments to the lineage, as if they were examining the season’s crop of corn.  As the 20th century wind its way through Iowa, it becomes clear that each Langdon is going to be an utterly unique individual, yet they’re like a much crossbred crop with traits that will burst out here and there that can be traced back to a forebear.  

The urge to leave the farm seems more dominant in Rosanna, but even Walter has shown a streak of rebellion that will reappear in his own kids. He could have brought his bride to his own family farm, but rather than live with his domineering father he has taken a chance with a mortgage and procured his own farm.   Rosanna, on the other hand, is more acutely aware that there’s another world out there, and she relishes the chance to grab a miniscule slice of it.

In 1923 she drives the buggy into town, tying the horses between a Ford and a Chevrolet. The quotidian purpose of her trip is to sell her eggs and butter, but the passage offers an illuminating glimpse of a young woman and her innate talents.  She’s a good negotiator with the local shopkeeper and she’s known in those parts for her superb flavored butter.

“It was lovely how even the most elementary social intercourse lifted her spirits,” is the way Smiley describes Rosanna’s thoughts. Later that same day she reflects, “there were so many things Rosanna could have been besides a farm wife, she thought. But it was not a source of regret—it was a source of pride.”

Rosanna understands intuitively that she has given birth not to calves but to full-blown human children with fetchingly distinct personalities. She’s fine with Frank going to high school in Chicago. Points of view switch from one Langdon to another throughout the story –which is part of the way Smiley infuses her tale with a delicious sense that someone is always hanging from a precarious place -- and we follow Frank’s restless spirit through his youthful adventures.

In Chicago he falls in with a crowd of delinquents even while he’s learning a new perception of the world from Rosanna’s Trotskyite sister, Eloise, and her Jewish husband –and the whole time, young Frankie still excels in school.  In 1937, Walter and Rosanna get a letter from Frank’s high school principal admonishing them to let their smart-without-even-trying son go to college.

“The whole prospect bothered Walter, but not in any way that he could express,” Smiley writes. Walter knows it isn’t narrow-mindedness. “It was much more that there were plenty of things out in the world that Frankie would learn about, and that he would have no scruples at all.” Learn he does, and scruples aren’t Frank’s strong suit.

Frank will have a clandestine sado-masochistic sort of love affair with Eunice but end up marrying Andy, who craves fine clothes and isn’t any more ready to settle into 1950s-style adulthood than Frank is.  In World War II he finds a calling for his photographic memory and his adrenaline addiction, training as a sniper.

He traipses through Africa, Sicily and Corsica, then through the ruins of Germany after the surrender, with a buddy who loots treasures, the start of a career in buying and selling remains, with Frank as an occasional investor.  Later, on orders from his brother-in-law Arthur, Frank will seduce a suspected Soviet agent and report on her comings and goings.

Still, despite the film-noirish and James Bond-ish touches, Frank will grope his way through life like most people. Not every action will have a big consequence, even when the stakes are highest during the Depression and the War.  Smiley told one interviewer: "You can't have constant drama all the time, or the reader will be overwhelmed.”

Overwhelmed or even worse, if operatic mayhem appeared every year the reader might start to find that the excess becomes predictable and melodramatic. Smiley is far too skilled a writer for that; her deceptively spare prose promises only that, as in reality, sometimes bad things will happen, sometimes good things will happen, sometimes life will just go on.

Walter could lose his farm in the Depression; some neighbors do. One day in 1935, he falls into the well. A farm can be a dangerous place, and Walter might drown. His land is now worth only $11 an acre, maybe, and he’s down to four milk cows, “which he didn’t mind compared with starving to death.”  He thinks about ending it all. He wonders if Rosanna would miss him, and he isn’t sure. But his shoulders won’t relax and let him sink; his body wants to save itself, no matter what.  He thinks of the incident as a close call and he doesn’t even tell Rosanna. 

The passage becomes, instead of a crisis, an insight into Walter’s steady stoicism and the continuous hum of his life as a creature of the land with longings he can’t quite articulate.  But as a reader I’m waiting with baited breath: will an heir to Walter’s temperament also contemplate suicide? And how will it end in a setting far away from Depression-era Iowa.

Already in Some Luck, we’ve seen the juxtaposition of the grownup and married Lillian’s unspoken discontent against her mother’s proud realization of her unrealized potential.  In 1946 Lillian is puttering around her Baltimore home, her thoughts revolving around how little she really knows about Arthur. Smiley’s description of the young bride’s longings shriek from between the lines, with a few well-chosen words that reveal all that is really eating at Lillian:   “During the day, she tried to spend her time appreciating her apartment in an imposing brick building with white trim that rather reminded her of her high school... She had a small but warm bathroom, reliable hot water, and a deep and satisfying bathtub. She had a gas range.... There was part [of the neighborhood] that ran up to the boundary of the insane asylum....She liked to shop at the Giant supermarket, and she especially enjoyed something called ‘Cheerios.’”

But you really know that Lillian has left the farm—and doesn’t know where she’s headed—when her three children wake up early on Easter morning of 1952. Little Timmy discovers that, besides the Easter baskets and chocolate rabbits and dyed eggs, there is a whole bowl of white eggs in the refrigerator. With, of course, no conscious idea that his grandmother counted the pennies she earned peddling her eggs through the Depression, he says, “Let’s hide the eggs.”

Like a family sitcom of the era, when Mommy and Daddy wake up, “it was Daddy who sat on the first egg, the one in the corner of the sofa.... Yellow gunk was stuck to his shorts and dripping over shards of eggshell on the couch.”

With all of these vivid strains of human existence, the only parts of Some Luck that feel like throwaway material are those in which Smiley writes from the point of view of a baby, pre-true awareness. The first time she does this is with Frank Langdon at five months old. “Now that he was sitting, he could also drop the spoon, and then, very carefully, pick it up again. Before learning to sit he had enjoyed lying on his back and waving the spoon in the air.”

The generic baby-discovering-life does nothing to foreshadow the person Frank will become.

On the other hand, I can’t wait to see what happens to grownup Frank. He’s 31 in 1951 and there’s something ominous in the air. Andy drinks too much and is afraid of the Russians – or maybe she’s really afraid of a life with Frank. And Frank himself, on a stroll through his quiet neighborhood, Floral Park, New York, “now the most average of men---he felt more frightened than he had ever felt before in his life. There had been a fear he’d known in the army, even after he was used to the explosions: a sudden nearby boom would make his balls jump, and seem to shoot an electric charge right up his spine. This was not like that. This was vaster and higher, the same feeling he’d had in dreams....he had been walking down the road, and the road had turned into a tree limb across an abyss, and he was out in the middle, surrounded only by air...”

Early Warning will take the descendants of Walter and Rosanna Langdon from 1954 to 1986. Between them Frank and Lillian have seven children as of the end of Volume I. The family will presumably confront the McCarthy hearings – will Arthur turn in Eloise? – the Kennedy assassination, the first moon landing, the civil rights movement, the back-to-the-land movement, LSD, EST, Ronald Reagan.

A millennial generation with no first-hand knowledge of Walter and Rosanna will grow up in Volume III, which will cover 1987 to 2019 –thereby hurling a few years into the future. There is, as a preview in Publishers’ Weekly suggests, a danger of too many descendants diluting the effervescent life stories that make Some Luck such a page-turner.

Still, I can’t wait to see how the various Langdon’s lives play out. I’m also eager to see how strains of Walter and Rosanna show through, perhaps unexamined by the characters themselves but detectable to the reader--like a drawing of a cityscape in which, if you look hard enough you’ll find the hidden face of Grandma.  

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