I must admit that when I picked up this book and found that it's about a real-estate agent in the greed-struck '80s, I made a face. Dull, I thought. Mortgages and termites and one of the crassest decades in American history. Now, 414 pages later, I feel quite different. GOOD FAITH is about selling houses the way MOBY DICK is about hunting whales: the description is accurate, but inadequate. In a way, Jane Smiley's splendid novel is a classic morality tale, including temptation, sin and all that good stuff.
Joe Stratford is a divorced small-town realtor whose funny, intelligent, sometimes wistful voice narrates the book. It's impossible not to love this guy. He's got a basic decency, a moral core, that's entirely admirable, and a disarming lack of pomposity. But his social life is so thin that his business card lists the telephone number of the bar where he hangs out and, though he is very good at his profession, it isn't making him rich.
Enter Marcus Burns, a charming ex-IRS agent with "untrustworthy" written all over him. He hooks Joe into a dicey, grandiose development project of the sort that was commonplace 20 years ago, in the era of financial piracy and the maniacal pursuit of wealth. At the same time, Joe starts an affair with a married woman, the raffish and sexy Felicity --- an entanglement complicated by his quasi-filial relationship to her father, local developer Gordon Baldwin. Joe's real parents are members of an obscure Protestant sect, punitive and godly; in his childhood they were "always alert for sin, always ready to root it out, especially out of me." Theirs is a clear-cut, absolutely rigid notion of "good faith."
For the rest of the people in GOOD FAITH, however, the title phrase is a far more slippery concept. Legally, the term suggests that the parties to an agreement have entered into it honestly, without intent to deceive or defraud --- which scarcely applies either to Marcus's schemes (His motto: "No one has enough money to follow his vision and also pay all his bills") or Joe and Felicity's liaison. Yet Marcus is one of the more likable villains of modern fiction, an intimate as well as a seducer, while Joe's connection with Felicity has real heat and substance. Together they make him less lonely, less careful and more alive. When Marcus tells him, "Every guy I ever met who made a million bucks only did it by going for broke," Joe nods. "It was exciting, going for broke," he says to himself. He's a sucker, but no loser.
Jane Smiley has never been one to oversimplify the rights and wrongs of human affairs. I fell in love with her writing and her moral sense when I read A THOUSAND ACRES, her Pulitzer-Prize-winning King Lear transplanted to an American farm. I like some of her earlier work even better (THE AGE OF GRIEF, ORDINARY LOVE AND GOOD WILL) and thought her last book, HORSE HEAVEN, was a great ride. I especially appreciate the way Smiley writes about work. She takes it seriously as the very stuff of our lives, not simply what her protagonists are doing when they're not emoting. She gets it right --- the passion and boredom, the frustration and the art, the insider details and jargon. In A THOUSAND ACRES, farming dominates the story as much as the characters; HORSE HEAVEN is set in the worlds of racing and breeding. And in GOOD FAITH, real estate takes on a fascination I would never have imagined.
Joe Stratford is matter-of-fact about the basic human need for shelter ("what people really like is a simple canvas to fiddle around with"), so he's happy with Gordon Baldwin's average, mass-produced houses (marketed as upscale communities with Scottish-sounding names; Smiley's talent has always had a satirical edge). But he also admires the exquisite buildings of the eccentric purist Gottfried Nuelle (who used to be a shop teacher) and his genius sidekick, Dale (they and a gay couple, both named David, who buy and renovate houses, are my favorite secondary characters, though the Baldwins are all pretty fabulous, too). It is a pleasure to watch Joe at his craft. A major part of his skill is psychological (a sense of when a deal might go sour, an instinct for how to save it) and a key part of his capital is credibility. "Everybody likes doing business with you," Marcus tells him. "People trust you. I mean, I can't tell you the number of times I've said, Well, one of my partners is Joe Stratford, and they can't help themselves, they breathe a sigh of relief."
Okay, so Joe's "class" becomes a front for Marcus's dishonorable intentions. But that doesn't mean it, or he, is inauthentic. "What I really liked," Joe says at one point, "[was] selling old houses to decent people … and then watching as individual lives developed in those houses." His amalgam of pragmatism and integrity, vulnerability and strength, may be what "good faith" actually means. It isn't biblical, it isn't ironic and it surely isn't perfect, but it's a comfort to know that it still exists in this world.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on May 10, 2004
- Publication Date: May 11, 2004
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 432 pages
- Publisher: Anchor
- ISBN-10: 0385721056
- ISBN-13: 9780385721059