by Jane Smiley
A review by Laura Miller
It seems obvious that good literary novels can be written about both of the two
things people are willing to kill each other over: love and money. Yet for some
reason, love gets most of the attention from fiction writers, while the more intriguing
or at least the less exhausted subject languishes nearly untouched. Jane
Smiley's latest, Good Faith, stands ready to balance the books. It's about
the real estate and financial boom of the mid-1980s, but anyone who lived and
invested and lost through the more recent bubble will find it pointedly, if not
Smiley is best-known for the Pulitzer-winning A
Thousand Acres, a grim updating of King
Lear about a contemporary Midwestern farm family with allegations of incest
thrown in for good measure, and for making, in an essay in Harper's magazine,
the claim that Uncle
Tom's Cabin is a better book than The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Technically speaking, absolute fact cannot
be established in the realm of opinion, but the latter assertion is about as
close to objectively wrong as you can get. What's strange about this is that
lately Smiley seems to have settled into writing what are more or less comic
novels of social observation in other words, into following in the footsteps
of Twain. (Or perhaps it's not so strange, and the Harper's essay was
a misguided, even unconscious attempt to clear herself a little ground.) Furthermore,
she's good at it.
In Good Faith, Smiley tweaks the nose of a more Smiley-sized rival,
Richard Ford, by making her narrator a divorced realtor in an unspecified
state that sounds a lot like New Jersey (or Pennsylvania?). Unlike Ford's Frank
Bascombe (from the novel Independence
Day), though, Smiley's Joe Stratford is not a man situated over a subterranean
chasm of ennui and detachment. Here, it's more of a pothole of detachment, and
there's no ennui to speak of. Besides, the novel is less concerned with what
a botch Joe has made of his relationships than with how an unassuming, stand-up,
small-town guy gets drawn slowly into an elaborate, precarious and grandiose
Admittedly, reading Good Faith requires a bit of the titular quality;
you need to be willing to entertain the notion that a book in which the characters
argue about interest rates and "the shakeout of the banking system"
can be entertaining. It can. This is a story of temptation, seduction, perhaps
madness, even if a major factor in it is real estate investment trusts. The
book isn't especially technical; it will give its readers no more than a cursory
understanding of the architecture of such deals, but it is a fascinating examination
of the psychology of money. It describes the moment when for the men of Nut
County, anyway the solid element of land collides with and seemingly dissolves
into the protean and largely immaterial element of wealth.
The agent for this alchemical transformation is a charismatic guy named Marcus
Burns, a former IRS agent turned financial advisor who buys a house from Joe
and helps extricate Joe's surrogate father, Gordon Baldwin, from an unholy mess
of back taxes. Having watched the coming and going of uncounted 1040 forms,
Marcus believes he has detected signs of the coming of a new order. When Marcus
convinces Gordon, a small-time developer and general wheeler-dealer, to upgrade
a batch of townhouses he's building with Italian tile, brick facing and wood-framed
windows, Joe thinks the units will be priced out of their market and go unsold.
But Marcus insists that an era of self-indulgence is a-borning. "Looking
back," says Joe, "I would have to say that that's when the '80s began,
as far as I was concerned the first week in June, 1982, when modest housing
in our rust-belt state got decked out with Italian tile."
Marcus turns out to be right, the units sell, and soon he's dispensing his
financial philosophy and prognostications to all and sundry, but especially
to Joe, who welcomes Marcus as his first real male friend. Plus, Marcus has
much to teach Joe about his own particular brand of voodoo economics, a spooky
science of smoke and mirrors. "You know, you can invest in anything now,"
Marcus proclaims. "It's like everything in the world all of a sudden turned
into money, and whatever it is you just pass it back and forth and it's all
the same. That's the secret." As dubious as it sounds, Marcus' advice works.
He teaches Joe how to brazen his way through several tricky deals and seems
to have a nearly uncanny intuitive connection to the gold market. Meanwhile,
Joe pursues some risky business of a more private nature: an affair with Gordon's
married daughter, Felicity.
When the remnants of the Nut County equivalent of the Rockefellers decide to
sell their handsome estate, Marcus convinces Joe, Gordon and the new manager
of the local savings and loan that it represents a fabulous opportunity. The
project keeps metastasizing from a few dozen houses to a few hundred, plus
a state-of-the-art water treatment plant, upscale shopping center, etc. with
no one to pull in the reins. The savings and loan industry has just been deregulated
by the Reagan administration, you see, and as Marcus puts it "There's money
everywhere! ... There's a lot more money than there are good investments, or
even investments at all, even bad investments ... Money these days is like water.
It can't stop looking for a place to go."
Ever so slowly, Joe goes from an apt facilitator of the Salt Key Farm development
deal to one of the corporation's key principals, and with that he begins to
change incrementally into another, less likable person. Always, there's the
underlying question of just how solid Marcus himself is, and that provides the
novel with some suspense to go along with the story of Joe's metamorphosis.
But just as absorbing are Smiley's affectionate depictions of all sorts of Nut
County types, from the gentrifying gay couple who can refurbish a ramshackle
Victorian in a thrice, to the temperamental master builder who sees himself
as an artist whose creations are sullied by their vulgar purchasers, to the
fractious members of the local planning commission.
As with most of Smiley's novels, the writing is fresh and breezy if not beautiful.
And has she yet received the credit she's due for writing terrific sex scenes
earthy, profane, joyful and detailed, but never self-important? Good Faith
is rich in them; sex matters a lot to Joe in an entirely believable way, but
he doesn't need to get, well, hysterical about it. For all that Smiley's hero
goes astray, he's a fundamentally good guy, an ordinary guy, even "average"
as he believes himself to be (I kept picturing him as Jack Lemmon), although
Felicity claims that his kindness makes him exceptional among his gender. You
get the impression that Smiley would never endorse that routine misanthropy,
her novel is so sympathetic to its male characters. (And in a nifty imaginative
trick, Felicity is opaque to Joe, and therefore to the reader, in the way that
people often perceive members of the opposite sex to be, even though most of
Smiley's readers are probably women.) Good Faith is an inventive and
generous investigation into the joys and perils of building something a house,
a trusted local business, a marriage, a community and well worth the investment.