A review of Good Faith by Jane Smiley

Stratford is an interesting narrator, and his passive acceptance, even in the worst of situations keeps the tone of the book light. In typical Smiley style, Good Faith is a tight, fast paced, and carefully set out novel full of rich detail and delicate twists. 

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Good Faith
By Jane Smiley
Faber & Faber, 416pp, June 2003, A$29.95
ISBN 0-571-21844-X

The laid back narrator sets the tone for Jane Smiley’s latest novel Good Faith right from the start. Joe Stratford is 40 years old, divorced, and although he describes himself as the perfect man, good looking, muscled, trustworthy, he is a passive recipient of his life – a obsessively tidy spectator. “This would be ’82” he begins, allowing even the date of his narrative to seem like something randomly chosen for him by the gods. Stratford is an interesting narrator, and his passive acceptance, even in the worst of situations keeps the tone of the book light. In typical Smiley style, Good Faith is a tight, fast paced, and carefully set out novel full of rich detail and delicate twists.

It is the heady 80s, Reaganism is in its heyday, and anything is possible. Financial paradigms are changing, people are getting rich quickly without capital, and Joe’s simple but successful formula of selling honest houses to local buyers is about to become obsolete. His boring bachelor existence is also troubled by an affair with his boss’s daughter Felicity:

My problem with 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)

Despite the impetus to act, Joe lets it all ride over him, pulling back despite the pain, and immersing himself in his “business.” The book’s good guy, Joe empathises with his buyers and sellers, smiling at their quirks and taking a commission cut to get the sale and keep everyone happy. Joe’s characterisation is set off by those around him – the beautiful and impulsive Felicity, the outrageous Marcus Burns, whose charisma and greed begin to infect Joe, the big hearted and disorganised developer Gordon, and his son and Joe’s partner, the accident prone childlike Bobby. The ex-IRS man Burns is perfectly drawn. His impeccable clothing, and the way he draws on Joe’s honesty to support his deals makes him the perfect antagonist. He isn’t all bad either. Even with a heart the “size of a walnut,” Burns helps Joe and Gordon break out of their comfort zones into what is perhaps, after all, a better life. Joe’s infatuation for the Baldwin family is an important underlying theme. His own fundamentalist Christian “familial cocoon” provides a nice contrast to the racy alcohol swigging late night hijinks of the Baldwins.

Smiley’s setting is pure middle-America. Portsmouth New Jersey is too obscure to conjure any preconceptions, but close enough to New York City to attract the big boys of finance, and small enough itself to be surburban. Joe’s eye is realistically attuned to the real estate market and when we look at a place we see its potential along with him in the little details:

The front yard sloped down to Maple Glen Road, and the backyard sloped somewhat less to a little rill that ran off the hump of a good-sized hill to the north. There was a good view down the long valley of the Blue River, a tributary of the Nut. A series of hills crowned with maples receded into the purple distance. One neighbor, across the road, was visible, though the windows of his house were hidden by foliage. The other neighbors, who really weren’t too far away, could not be seen, and a small shopping centre at the crossroads of Highway 12 and Maple Glen Road was hidden by a curve, though it was less than half a mile distant, (58)

This paragraph provides setting, characterisation, and an underlying hint at Joe’s own fairly pedestrian desires in a single hit. Much of the novel is like that – powerful without ever being overt.

Another thing which makes Good Faith such a pleasure to read is it wry humour. At one point Joe looks at Marcus with obvious pleasure and tells him that he is full of shit, and then proceeds to do his every bidding. It is all good fun though, like the time they get into an exclusive golf club by telling the gatekeeper that they are meeting Paul Newman, and by the liberal use of obscure acronyms. There are plenty of clues along the way too such as Burns’ use of the word “unrealestate” for the thousand acre ranch which gives Joe such confidence. There are other forms of comic relief too, from the campy home renovators The Davids, to the obsession of George Sloan with a run down house, and his ultimate rise as successful gold trader. There is also the larger than life Gottfried Nuelle, with his perfect houses, his obsession for detail, his reliance on his live in designer, and his temper. The sexual romping, bitchiness, and backbiting are also funny – including Joe’s unseen ex-wife Sherry, with her penchance for shopping and pretentious restaurant, and the pert, pretty coke snorting Susan. No matter how low the novel goes, both in terms of financial ugliness, or sexual slapstick, Joe’s aura of relaxed spectator, and the classy veneer remain until the last page. And after all, money isn’t everything.

If the ending is a tad predictable, it really doesn’t hurt the novel, which reads quickly and leaves the reader feeling positive and relaxed, despite its heft and shady dealings. The denouement is satisfying enough – a happy ending perhaps, but open ended enough to only hint at a transformation.

For more information visit: Good Faith