"Good Faith" by Jane Smiley

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist hits the jackpot with this keenly observed novel about an ordinary man's seduction by a grandiose real estate scheme.

Published April 26, 2003 12:26AM (EDT)

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 painfully familiar.

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 development scheme.

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.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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