Joe Stratford inspires trust, even if he is a real estate agent.
As the narrator of Jane Smiley's new satirical novel about greed, sex and real estate in the heady 1980s, Joe treats the reader like a friend. Only later do we learn he's never had many of those not best friends, anyway.
The New Jersey countryside on the brink of runaway development provides the setting for Good Faith, Smiley's 11th novel. Once again, this talented writer takes on a different world and an entirely new challenge. Her early novel, Duplicate Keys, was a murder mystery; A Thousand Acres redid Shakespeare'sKing Lear; Moo satirized academia; and Horse Heaven skewered the world of thoroughbred racing. Now it's real estate and banking.
In Good Faith, Smiley looks at what happens when old values are abandoned in the rush to get ahead. She easily enters the mind of her lead character, a 40-year-old divorced male real estate agent. A moral guy who "really liked selling old houses to decent people," Joe began to change once a former IRS agent named Marcus Burns convinced him he was letting opportunity slip away. "It's like everything in the world turned into money," Marcus says. In legal terms, "good faith" is a state of mind denoting honesty, faithfulness to one's duty or obligation, and absence of any intent to defraud. When the novel begins, Joe's reputation for "good faith" appears secure. He's a likeable guy with regular habits who is good to his religious parents. Just being associated with him almost makes an enterprise more viable. When he loses that reputation, he sees for the first time that his good name was worth more than money.
While Joe respects his parents, the family he really belongs to is the much looser one of Gordon Baldwin, the realtor who gave him a job when he finished college. Gordon's daughter, Felicity, married to the wrong man for 20 years, initiates an affair with Joe, and their inventive stolen sex scenes spice up long days of driving around to show real estate. Smiley has fun with these scenes, and sometimes her overblown words come right out of a realtor's book, as when Joe describes "the dark house that we made by pressing the portals of our lips together, so spacious and fascinating a place that our whole selves could go right in there and live." Though readers don't know exactly what Joe looks like, and probably can't recall what kind of car he drives, those details about everyone else are nailed down, as are the quirks of buyers and sellers and investors. You learn a lot about the business, as well as about human nature, in these pages.
Among the New Yorkers discovering the area are clients such as the two gay men, both named David, who purchase instinctively, deciding on a house before they've even stepped inside. Then, there are the usually careful Sloans, who look and look, but buy impulsively when the wife sees a cookie-cutter house and decides that "this one won't last a day." No matter that her husband's dreams of more romantic vistas are left behind. Considerable humor lurks in Smiley's descriptions of housing developments, as when one character speaks of "a place where people who've watched a lot of TV feel comfortable." An underlying theme, epitomized by Felicity's long-suffering environmentalist husband Hank, is the rape of the land the fact that in all the growth, few seem to care what happens to the place itself. This sounds like a moral tale, and in some ways it is, but Smiley's delivery is never stuffy or condescending. On the last page, she tosses the reader a happy ending. To believe in it, all you need is faith in coincidence.
Anne Morris is a writer in Austin.