- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2003

By Jane Smiley
Knopf, $26, 417 pages

Imagine a world where tapas are still exotic, where only a few those who studied art in Spain have discovered dried cranberries and no one drinks bottled water. Remember the '80s?
"Good Faith," Jane Smiley's 12th book, follows Joe Stratford, a moderately successful real estate agent in small-town New Jersey, as he is spurred by Marcus, a fashionable newcomer, to invest in developing a high-end neighborhood. Two years into President Reagan's first term, people are ready to buy houses again. They want to live on golf courses. The company they form with Gordon, Joe's surrogate father and a local developer, will make billions.
Their venture is, of course, doomed, and there are pleny of inside jokes of hindsight. Marcus' sister Jane explains junk bonds to Joe (wink). Gold is the safest place to put your money (wink-wink). Deregulating savings and loans will make us all rich in a low-risk way (wink-wink-wink).
Oh, the dramatic irony.
Miss Smiley is good at doom. She does not doom relationships nor businesses. She dooms people. Her characters lose their reputations, their lovers, their dogs. Their most sacred ideals are turned upside down. And when they are bloodied and writhing on their tiled floors trimmed with marble, the writer kicks them one more time for good measure. It's tragedy (the Greek kind), but she avoids melodrama by having Joe, the narrator, present his story with a sigh, as if it couldn't have happened any other way.
Unfortunately, a story even one as well-made as this one about real estate has great potential for being boring. And for all its foreshadowing of how the '80s end, "Good Faith" has none of the eerie foreboding that makes "A Thousand Acres," which also centers on land and for which Miss Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize, so exhilarating.
By Page 100, the reader has peeked into the financial statements, bank accounts and mortgage applications for several homebuyers. There's a point to it that this is the way Joe has been trained to categorize people, the same way Brett Easton Ellis would reduce them to a pair of designer sunglasses and a tan; that this begins a new financial era. But it's a dry point. The details pile onto one another so that it's hard to remember or care what the last thing that happened was.
Struggling to climb out from under all those details are some beautiful descriptions. Joe has an affair with Felicity, Gordon's married daughter, whom he has known for decades. Parked outside her house one evening, he is hit by the life she leads most of the time, with her husband, Hank, and their two sons.
"The life Felicity and Hank and Clark and Jason lived on Nut Hollow Road involved sports equipment lying in the yard, a light on in the upstairs window when all the cars were gone, a half-full wheelbarrow next to a flower bed, a sweater draped over the porch railing many things going on, some of them not finished, tasks put off in favor of, I am sure, more interesting things." Thoughts like that get to breathe when Miss Smiley allows the reader to forget she's making a point about how badly this decade will end.
That point itself manages to be both timely and far removed. The real estate bubble might as well be the tech bubble. References to round-trip sales evoke Enron Corp. When Marcus tells Joe, "'Accountants are in the business of making sure the books balance. That's all. You could steal a company blind, but if the books balanced, the accountant would have done his job,'" the ghost of Arthur Andersen lingers over the page.
Despite its relevance, "Good Faith" is hard to relate to because most of the people aren't compelling. Joe isn't all that interesting. He's a nice, trustworthy guy, which is a fine thing for him to be if he's going to marry your daughter but not if he's going to be your tour guide for 400 pages. Marcus is a man who's a little too coordinated. Even Felicity, who at first seems like she has the potential to be intriguing, turns out to be only unhappy and weird, albeit charmingly so.
The characters with the best ability to draw the reader in a couple, both named David, who have things other than real estate and development on their minds spend too little time onstage, and when they're around, Miss Smiley often falls back on stereotype. They spend their weekends fixing up their second house.
They have a friend in New York who needs a place to store costumes. They travel in the same circle as an up-and-coming designer named Yves. And because they are usually referred to as "the Davids," their identities get lost. It's not clear why the Davids are around other than, perhaps, to remind the reader that same-sex (male) couples are the harbinger of trends.
Amid all the unhappiness, the saddest part of Joe's story is how content he is. His high school girlfriend taught him how to dress; Gordon got him started in business; Felicity decided they would have an affair. Joe is brought deeper and deeper into Marcus' development idea without being dazzled by the billions of dollars Marcus keeps bringing up, his motivation being that he is dazzled by Marcus' friendship.
Joe is a man whom things happen to, and though he eventually begins to pursue the project (and his life) actively instead of just reactively, that proves a short-term development brought on by a desire to be like someone else, Marcus. In the end, nothing has changed, and the protagonist hasn't developed into a person.

Erin Mendell is a copy editor at The Washington Times.

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