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Good Faith

23 May 2003: Although it is a smiling book, Jane Smiley's new novel, Good Faith (Knopf, 2003), does not play for laughs. The drollest line lies in the Acknowledgments at the end: "Several lawyers advised me on this project, but they preferred not to be mentioned by name. I thank them anyway." It would be fun to read transcripts of those conversations, and I wouldn't be surprised to find that they read with the same relaxed good humor of the novel.

Good Faith takes place in a fictional mid-Atlantic county that she calls 'Marlborough' but might have called 'Cockaigne.' Cockaigne was the land of medieval English legend in which delicious foods would walk right up to inhabitants and offer themselves for immediate consumption. The world that Jane Smiley conjures here is one of almost unremitting simple pleasures. While she tells a story about a very chancy real-estate development, and although most of the incidents in that story seem to involve some kind of betrayal, the parade of creature comforts completely precludes the dark, often tragic intensity of her fiction up to A Thousand Acres. It would not be quite right to say that the bamboozled narrator ends up sadder but wiser. The little things in life really satisfy him too much to leave him open to sadness.

At forty-two, Joe Stratford is something more than an average sensual man. A successful realtor, he knows his numbers and he likes the negotiating. But there is nothing high-pressure about him. He seems to stand just to the side of life, watching other people do what they do with a detached amusement not unmixed with childlike wonder. His indeterminate situation is signaled by the way he belongs and yet doesn't belong to two families. The only child of very religious parents - hymn-singing missionary supporters - Joe drifted as a boy into the orbit of the Baldwins, a demonstrative family of mysterious origins, whose guiding star, until a fatal car crash in college, was daughter Sally. Joe went to work for Sally's father, Gordon, right after her funeral. That was twenty years ago. Now it is 1982.

Good Faith is not quite a historical novel, but it is deliberately set at an interesting time in this country's financial history. Newly deregulated, the nation's savings-and-loan associations (lenders of most mortgages) were embarking on a course of aggressive and often misguided investments that would bring the industry to its knees. The economy was taking off - or at least the stock market was. Some people were suddenly much richer than they had been, and they weren't shy about spending. It is hard to say whether what we're living in now, in 2003, is the late evening of a long day of prosperity, but most readers will hear a lost innocence in Joe's unironic account of real-estate speculation and gold trading. Alarms that Joe can't hear go off on nearly every page, tilting the story toward an inevitable disaster for which, we fear, Joe won't be prepared. When he befriends Marcus Burns, a former IRS agent from New York who buys a house through him, we know that Joe is in for Big Trouble.

The friendship with Marcus takes a long time to impinge, partly because it develops in the background of another relationship. Good Faith has hardly begun before Joe finds himself in bed with Sally's sister, Felicity. Aptly named, Felicity has a Chaucerian gift for good times, and her earthy embrace of sensual pleasure sets the tone of the first half of the novel. Jane Smiley writes about Felicity with an elated vernacular that nonetheless to rich to be vulgar.

Ten minutes later, Felicity was wrapped in my bathrobe, frying up cheeseburgers in the kitchen. I was sitting by the breakfast bar in my jeans and a T-shirt, watching her. She did it just the way a woman with a husband and two teenage sons would, slapping the meat around almost unconsciously, peppering but not salting it, toasting the bread I had scrounged up in lieu of buns, finding onions and tomatoes and lettuce. She said, "I could eat both of these after that. You know, I always thought it was strange that people would go to sleep after sex. I always want to get up and at least eat a good meal. Going to the grocery store. Now that's a very sexy thing to do after you've been getting it on. All the food looks so appetizing." She flipped the burgers and hummed a little tune, took the second batch of toast out of the toaster. She said, "So, now tell me why you asked if your condo was burning down? That was such a funny line, Joey. You are so funny." She pressed the burger with the spatula.
"Just a come-on. It popped into my mind."
"Pure genius." She smiled.
She put the burgers on a couple of plates, arranging the vegetables in neat rings, looked in the pantry and found some potato chips, did it all efficiently and gracefully.
I said teasingly, "Thanks for the burgers, Mom," and put my arm around her. What I was really doing was getting inside the force field of honest pleasure again. 21-2

This passage would have sent me straight to McDonald's if it hadn't been the middle of the night; as it was, I had to get up and make my own cheeseburger. The overlap of post-coital contentment and gustatory delight underscoring Felicity's badinage here conjures a moment of human happiness so quotidian and yet so pure that the vegetables in their neat rings take on the glow, if not the gilt, of halos. The ensuing affair climaxes in what can only be called a private orgy: snowbound in a New York City hotel room, Joe and Felicity spend a weekend making love and ordering from room service.

But Felicity is married to someone else, and Joe is pretty sure that her family, fond as they are of him, would be mighty upset to learn that Felicity was cheating with him. Not least because he discourages her from talking about her husband, an outdoorsman and environmentalist named Hank, thus keeping the marriage out of the affair, Joe gets the idea that Felicity is not interested in divorce; moreover, she has those teenaged sons. The secrecy of the affair becomes burdensome.

My problem about Felicity had several aspects, which I had organized in my mind. One was that we had gone too far. The trip to New York had been too much fun and too intimate. If I hadn't experienced that, I might not now be ruminating obsessively about some way into the future for us both, in a manner that allowed not just sex but conversation, companionship, long hours together.191

The relationship ends when Joe drops in on Felicity at home and meets with a very chilly reception. It is only now that he finds himself alone again that Joe realizes how important his friendship with Marcus Burns has become.

I thought for a moment there about a strange thing: I couldn't really say that I had ever had a male friend, even a buddy. My best friend in high school was Sally, I didn't last long enough in college for anyone to make an impression, and I had been in business since I passed the exam for my broker's license when I was twenty-two. My business didn't really promote friendships -  Realtors are likely to be loners ... It was odd to think of myself, a sociable guy, as someone without a real friend, but right then it didn't upset me, because I felt I now had a friend, Marcus. ... He had a trick of laughing and glancing at me sharply, looking right into my face, that made me feel like I was actually communicating with him.243

The child of a large and poor Irish family, Marcus Burns has a lot to say for himself, and a lot to say about how the world works; as an IRS agent, he has witnessed a lot of human folly. His friendship with Joe is largely a matter of passing on his accumulation of wisdom. Marcus knows all the angles, or claims to. Indeed, he is all angles and no level, but Joe, pleased to have a friend, and needing, in his uncommitted life, the direction of a stronger person's will, is only too happy to go along for the ride. For most of Good Faith, this ride concerns the development of Salt Key Farm, the former estate of some old-money people that Gordon, Marcus, and Joe buy for five million dollars, but without putting up a penny, thanks to the lending eagerness of a local S&L. From the beginning, the vision is Marcus's: Salt Key Farm will be a posh golf resort. That Marcus is able to convince the crusty and skeptical Gordon of the viability of this prospect testifies to his rhetorical acumen, but as the deal ticks along, always behind schedule, always in need of permits or better soil or payments to engineers and architects, his complete lack of real-estate experience becomes agonizingly clear, even to Joe. Almost everyone involved - Gordon, Gordon's wife, Betty, Marcus's wife, Linda, and his sister, Jane, whom he installs as the projects financial officer (she's got real banking experience), Joe, and even Marcus himself - admits to spending sleepless nights of worry as deadlines approach.

Ordinarily, Marcus's streams of gab appear as direct discourse, but one very interesting exception exposes Marcus's true flim-flam character. At this point, he has persuaded Joe to wind down his realty business and work full time on the Salt Key Farm deal.

When I asked Marcus what to say to engineers, supervisors, secretaries, Bart, Jim Crosbie [the bankers], the stray investor or two, inspectors, and bureaucrats, he told me to try and figure out what they needed to know, what they were looking for, and then tell them that. The overall plan, he said, was a kind of beautiful dream - a vision of a place not to buy a house but to live in a certain way, a better way than most people were used to but a way that everyone understood without even trying. The immediate objective was only a step to the overall plan. Each person I talked to was to be a stepping-stone to the overall plan. It was my job to educate them so they would take their natural places in the plan. I should consider myself a kind of fortune-teller. Had I ever been to a fortune-teller? If I ever had, I would notice that the fortune-teller always looks you right in the face, looks at you in a searching an interested way that no one else ever does.

This, of course, echoes the passage that I've already quoted above ("a trick of laughing..."). The passage continues,

While you are having your fortune told, you think that the fortune-teller is fascinated by you and your fate, and maybe he is, but he is also watching the feelings and thoughts pass across your face, and that is how he knows your fortune. Your fortune, said Marcus, is what you want to happen, and if you go to the fortune-teller and he divines what you want to happen and agrees with you that it will happen, then it will. You will make it happen because the fortune-teller told you it would. It was this sort of influence I was to exert over everyone - even receptionists, even the women at the board of records whose only job was to retrieve surveys and plans. It was global.
That was why, I realized, I wasn't allowed to be a Realtor any longer. A Realtor finds people more or less the house they want, then does the paperwork so they can get it but leaves the decision to the people themselves. I was no longer in the business of leaving the choice to others. I was in the business of inspiring them.
I would come home and watch a little TV or read a magazine and laugh at this bullshit idea, and then I would go out the next day and inspire people. One by one, all that summer and into the fall, everyone I dealt with got very enthusiastic.260-1

Jane Smiley is laying out here nothing other than the formula of American optimism, that magic process, worked over and over again during our periodic booms, whereby Thinking Makes It So. As a 'control' against which to measure all this hot air, she gives us the character of Gottfried Nuelle. Despite his name (which, like Felicity's, comes loaded with intent, in this case, I suspect - because Gottfried is so contrary - a play on the Latin 'nolo'), Gottfried is a local like everyone else, but unlike everyone else he is a genuine artisan, someone almost obsessively committed to the production of excellence. He builds beautiful, almost hand-made houses, and his way with woodwork elicits descriptions almost as mouth-watering as the ones about food.

I looked at him, then looked around the room. They had put up plain pine cabinets with black wrought-iron pulls in the shape of oak leaves. The cabinets had lots of knots in the wood and were a rich yellow color. The floorboards were of differing widths, also pine. Gottfried had laid the interesting knots in the middle, where they could be appreciated.321

Gottfried takes a deep dislike to Marcus right at the start, when Marcus buys one of his houses and then insists on erecting an inharmonious split-rail fence. Gottfried's arrogance is wholly unoptimistic, based instead on a low opinion of his fellow-creatures. Like Joe's parents, he knows that hard times follow every boom, and when Joe's boom busts, he loses Gottfried's trust as well. Also like Joe's parents, Gottfried is not distracted by pleasure. For in the end it is the sheer comfort of hearing Marcus talk, and of trying out his 'fortune-telling' on everyone else, that lulls Joe into his final mistake.

This, in a rather late-stage development, involves trading in gold. With the Salt Key Farm deal still very much up in the air, Marcus decides to make some quick money by betting on precious metals. The only problem is that he hasn't got any money. So, in a series of masterfully indirect conversations, he persuades Joe to stake him. For a few days, Joe walks around with a bank draft for sixty thousand dollars in his pocket, waiting for the right moment to hand it over to Marcus. The inevitable outcome will be as obvious to every reader as Oedipus's fate was to Sophocles' audience.

By this time, Joe has a new romance. Having decided that he should settle down, Marcus has fixed him up with an artist, about ten years younger, who's from the area but who has already had a bad first marriage in Spain. Susan is in many ways the opposite of Felicity; for one thing, she really knows a lot about the finer things in life. Joe takes her to a local resort for dinner and dancing on the kind of 'real date' that would be out of the question with Felicity in more ways than one. Perhaps because Ms Smiley's earlier fiction taught me that, whatever her active beliefs might be, the author was brought up in the stern morality of the heartland, I found it disturbing that, about to make love, Susan would produce a few lines of cocaine (another madness of the 80's). Nor could I quite condone - by which I mean that I did not feel that the author wanted me to condone - an episode of inappropriately public sex at a pool party. These misgivings bore fruit. Susan ultimately reveals herself as a fair-weather friend. When the inevitable defalcation occurs, and Joe wonders how his friend could have ripped off his savings, Susan interrupts him.

"I have to say that I really don't want to go on with this."
"With what ?"
"With this thing that has happened to you. Or that you did. Or, anyway, it's going to take a long time to sort this out, you said so yourself, and I don't want to go through it with you. I like you, but I thought about what sort of thing this is going to be, and I have to be honest. It's not for me." She smiled quietly and with complete conviction.408

That quiet, convinced smile is a token of the moral bankruptcy that underlies the novel's fiscal one, but unlike Ms Smiley's earlier novels, Good Faith does not end on a harrowed, chastened note. Joe loses his savings, yes, but he's soon back in the realty business, and he doesn't have to pick up any of the expensive pieces of Salt Key Farm. (One of the bankers goes to jail.) And there is a bright moment at the very end that promises a nice future for the now fiftyish Joe. I mentioned at the start that betrayal is a recurring motif in Good Faith, but the betrayals all turn out to be venal. Marcus, of course, betrays everybody, but for his wife and children the separation is probably an improvement (his son appears to have been a troubled child while his father was on hand). Joe's betrayals are all very petty, and almost without consequence, for in this fictional world, perhaps not so very unlike the real one, most people are oblivious - they soon forget. (Gottfried, of course, is the exception; perhaps the saddest thing that happens to Joe is losing him as a client). The loss of Marcus's friendship is treated with no small jocularity, playing as it does on the American passion for physical therapy. (And note the ostinato repetitions of the phrase 'best friend.')

I did call Marcus my friend. I would say, "He was my best friend. I don't understand it." But, really, I hadn't called him my best friend when he was still around. Calling him my best friend was a bad idea, an expensive idea, too. During the period that I was referring to him as my best friend, I had shooting pains in my knees, constant migraine headaches, and a persistent pain on the right side of my neck. I spent a lot of money at the chiropractor, who took X rays and decided that my atlas was completely out of alignment, and then I went there and had my atlas aligned six times, which cost plenty of money with all of the doctors I was seeing as well, but the pains didn't go away until I stopped referring to Marcus as my best friend and started referring to him as Marcus-Burns-Oh-I-had-a run-in-with-him-too.413

Good Faith is as full of satisfactions for the reader as it is for Joe and everyone else in Marlborough County. In addition to the likeable narrator and his engaging view of life, the novel offers the scary menace of a catastrophe that, when it comes, turns out not to hurt so very badly after all. Let's just hope that our own recovery from the real long boom, adumbrated in this novel, will be half as painless.

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