By Jane Smiley
Knopf, 417 pp., $26
f it's a little late to be reviewing Good Faith -- a novel released this spring -- it isn't too late to be recommending it this summer. You can file it under "beach read": smart, funny, sexy, and terrifically observant, a page-turner despite its 400-plus pages but with a head on its shoulders to set you thinking on the way we lived then to maybe explain the way we live now.
That's "we" so long as you're a member of the mid- to upper middle class in all-white, totally whitebread America. That's "then" as in 1982, days when day trading was the latest thing, S&Ls weren't belly-up, real estate values were ready to sky-rocket, and a 40-year-old, divorced man with no children could live the very good life on $72,000 a year.
Welcome, then, to the infant world of junk bonds and T-bill futures, faux finishes and "teardowns," risotto, gnocchi, and bruschetta on the menu of what was your neighborhood Italian restaurant, and a U.S. market for bottled water just waiting to be tapped.
Meet Jane Smiley's Joe Stratford, real estate agent in an unnamed state not unlike New Jersey. He's shrewd but not unfair. Nor is he unnice. He's just a guy who likes "selling old houses to decent people ... and then watching as individual lives developed in those houses"; a guy who understands the art of the deal but a guy equally "good at shifting the balance when things go sour" (everybody happy?); a guy good at doing business for and with his partner Gordon Baldwin (who's in "sales": houses, land, cows, antique doorknobs, you name it), good at keeping Gottfried Nuelle (a demanding, high-quality home builder) halfway satisfied (some of the time), and good at keeping Baldwin's daughter Felicity Ornquist for a few months very happy (in and out of bed and unbeknownst to Felicity's husband).
Stratford's a good son too to his aging parents, parents who are "the perfect example of the idea that you can live up to your ideals every single day of your life, absolutely follow the book, and still get the wrong child."
Wrong child? Well, Stratford's no saint (adulterer, healthy drinker, no stranger to making some big bucks), and he doesn't claim to be a saint (though he's straight-up honest all way 'round). But those strict (yet ungloomy) parents of his ... Yes, they follow the book, the Good Book, to the letter as members of some unnamed Protestant sect and live out their latter days reading the Bible aloud, praying together aloud, discussing salvation "along with the price of tomatoes and chicken," and supporting some missionaries oversees. Secure in the belief that the Lord's path is a "source of perennial joy," they've got one thing to fear and it isn't those dreadful Roman Catholics. It's the wages of sin.
"People do tend to spoil things, don't they," Stratford's mother one day announces cheerfully. To which Stratford's father adds, "We can't live in paradise, because man is fallen. He felled himself with his own hand. Redemption doesn't take place in this world, Scripture says, so whatever looks like paradise can't be, and so it isn't. If we look for it to be, then we are deceived, and Satan is at work."
At work, then: Marcus Burns and his plan for "paradise": Salt Key Farm, a wealthy family's former country spread (mansion, stables, gardens, the works), which Stratford gets his hands on to divvy up as lots (middle- to upper-middle-income homes) but Burns has his eye on to divvy up as high-end megahouses, a golf course, a clubhouse, a set of chi-chi shops, an elementary school -- upscale all of it and never mind the unobtained county permits and never mind that this quiet landscape of rolling farmland and unpretentious villages ain't seen nothing like it. But it's what the weekenders from New York City are in the market for, so it's what Burns is in the business of trying to build. His method of financing? Stratford ain't seen nothing like it: shady but legal from the looks of it, the very latest in creative fund-raising and loan transfers. And because Burns is a former IRS agent, he knows the rules you can break and the rules you can't, knows how and how not to look on paper, how to bring in the banks, how to bring in the investors, and how to promise anybody anything so long as what he's promised happens to be what those anybodies think they want -- in short, the standard ropes, the new ropes (according to the gospel of Reagan, according to the rules of deregulation), and then some.
Stratford's no dummy. He falls in with Burns, but Burns falls short of the promised windfall. In fact, he's a thief. And his sister Jane's an even better thief. (And Felicity? Read and see.) So Stratford loses his shirt. And this will come as anybody's surprise?
The real surprise is this novel's managing to make all this entertaining, believable, accurate to the smallest detail and, in a real triumph of characterization, make the worst of the book's "sinners" not wholly unlikable. (Burns the irredeemable, for one, is no easy man to root for, so why do we, sort of, sometimes?) But Joe Stratford ... We're to believe he shows not one ounce of ill-will throughout these pages and especially not in the closing pages, when he's very nearly wiped out, living back home with his parents, being precisely the "right child" after all? That he comes to no other conclusion, after all he's been through, except to say, in summary, that there's "grace in the material world" as he follows the figure of Felicity 10 years later down a ski slope?
Good Faith is a quick read but maybe too compressed in its closing scenes, too lacking in climactic punch to balance its lengthily laid-out rising action. For its bedroom scenes alone, though, healthier examples of full-on, adult, unneurotic sexuality you couldn't have found this spring or won't find this summer.