It is difficult for even the best authors to sustain the promise offered by a good first book of a series. For them, as well as for the readers, the characters and setting are familiar, rather than fresh; hence, even a creative plot line can seem contrived or otherwise unfulfilling. And if it’s known in advance that more than two books are planned, the middle volumes often suffer from a real or perceived “sophomore slump”: a favorable interpretation might label intermediate capers “bridges” to the closing of the saga, while a less charitable one might call them “marking (or should that be marketing?) time”. When a fledgling author does well with an initial volume, the pressure is perhaps even higher: the audience is waiting to see if he or she can deliver again.
Anthony Lewis does deliver with his second novel, Middle America. I greatly enjoyed his first effort, The Third Revolution, but was wondering how he would follow up, since the primary story line was adequately wrapped up at its conclusion. Taking up a few years after the revolution, Middle America focuses on familiar characters mostly in the business of getting on with their business in the free zone, which has expanded from Montana to include several neighboring states. Governor Ben Kane is now former governor, and back to running his popular watering hole, with his circle of friends mostly nearby; and Running Wolf is helping tend a growing herd of buffalo that have helped rejuvenate the Sioux, Blackfoot, and other tribes, as well as captured the interest of environmentalists and others in what remains of the United States. Each is dealt unexpected challenges that form the basis of the action over the course of the book.
After the suspense-laden story line of The Third Revolution, money mysteries, an odd kidnapping, and buffalo-herding adventures will probably seem rather too sedate for some readers. I found the pace of Middle America slower, and the action less compelling in some ways, but not significantly less satisfying. Lewis has matured as a writer, and that shows primarily in his ability to pull off a lighter tale in good form. Typographical and similar errors seemed more frequent, and some turns of phrase seemed overly dramatic to my ear, but these were minor distractions. Being familiar with most of the major characters already, and easily becoming immersed in the goings-on of Middle America and Shining City left me reluctant to put the book down, even when I was reading well past my usual bedtime.
Characterization and setting drive a good deal of this story, and in those areas Lewis capitalizes splendidly on what he created in The Third Revolution. While not the most fully-fleshed characters I’ve encountered, Kane, Running Wolf, and crew are believably wrought, dealing with complex challenges in realistic ways. While Lewis’ depiction of Shining City is nicely rich, his vibrant portrayal of the Montana plains and weather almost attains the status of a character in its own right. The story is deeply tied to the land and its inhabitants’ ways, and Lewis never loses sight of that. I particularly appreciate his refusal to demonize drinking – something which will doubtless result in some uncomfortable squirming for any readers who have swallowed the Neo-Prohibitionist Kool-Aid currently being generously distributed. Deft touches of freedom philosophy as well as the overtly free Shining City setting blend nicely with the action rather than grinding it to a halt. The process of getting the state out of the way of private enterprise is also fairly realistically shown – no instant anarchist utopia here, neatly hidden in the off-stage years in between Lewis’ novels.
Anthony Lewis appears to clearly understand that subsequent novels in a series walk a tricky tightrope: they must offer something new and interesting while also retaining at least some of what made the initial book a success. Some might find fault with his decision to focus more on characters than delivering another fast-paced action tale; while that is one of several promising roads not taken, I am quite satisfied with the one Lewis did choose. With Middle America, Lewis demonstrates two important attributes—that he is a talented writer; and that he isn’t interested in churning out formulaic fiction. His blog, The Idle Mind, reveals that two more works are in the pipeline; and I’m looking forward to reading each of them.