'Good Faith' is 'real' good stuff

Jane Smiley's stories compelling, true to life

Sunday, May 18, 2003

Because Jane Smiley's new novel, "Good Faith," is set in the 1980s and is populated by a bunch of small-town guys on the cusp of an enormous real estate deal, two things seem certain from the get-go:

The good times will be great while they last, but the good times never last long.

Smiley, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for her novel "A Thousand Acres," isn't quite as predictable as that. She is so adept at crafting a smooth, satisfying novel that it hardly matters if we see the crash-and-burn coming from a mile away.

The book's narrator, Joe Stratford, starts out as something of a pathetic case. In his early 40s, Joe is recently divorced and has no kids, no real friends and an OK job in real estate.

Joe's description of his relationship with his parents perfectly encapsulates his hapless, innocuous life. "I was a disappointment but at least I was likable, and that was not unimportant to them."

But a slick former agent with the Internal Revenue Service named Marcus Burns -- who vows never to pay taxes again -- swoops into town and persuades Joe and several other locals to invest in a project that would transform a famous local farm into an upscale housing development.

Marcus is a smooth talker, and he manages to inspire the townspeople by telling them that they're going to be left out of the loop of money and good times unless they start offering their money and their time.

This is the '80s, Marcus says. "Experience doesn't count anymore. ... the way things are going in Washington, there is going to be more fun, more more more fun than anyone has ever had since God knows when, because the tax code is transforming before your very eyes, and everyone is perfectly happy to see it happen."

When Joe starts believing that his life is simply meant for greatness -- even before that momentous land deal is done -- we know that he's getting too big for his small-town britches. In a moment of utter self-involvement, brought on by Marcus' steady stream of compliments, Joe says, "I had lived, without understanding it, the proper American trajectory; rising and rising, dropping off the first-stage rocket, then the second stage, then shooting into space, destined to orbit the earth some uncounted number of times before splashing into the ocean off Florida, retired in the far-off 21st century."

Smiley appears to have done her research on the technical aspects of real estate development, with references to the tax code, land perks, septic systems and meetings with the county supervisor. But "Good Faith" never loses its momentum, particularly because its cast of characters is wonderfully compelling and true to life.