Jane Smiley's 'Good Faith'-- a small-town Enron

April 13, 2003|By A.J. Sherman | A.J. Sherman,Special to the Sun

Good Faith, by Jane Smiley. Alfred A. Knopf. 416 pages. $26.

The first-person narrative is a tricky genre, especially, as here, where the narrator presents himself as quite ordinary and almost totally insight-free. Joey Stratford, a decent and pleasant American real estate agent, described as "cute" by several women, not overly encumbered with intelligence, stumbles into erotic adventures and the mother of all frauds with a numb passivity unlikely in anyone over voting age. The time is 1982, the setting rural Pennsylvania, but that doesn't excuse Joey's terminal innocence, or his singular lack of affect. His emotional range is revealed when he tells us that he would probably still be married if his former wife Sherry "hadn't acted to unmarry me."

Herself dissatisfied, Sherry keeps asking him if he's happy, what he wants, and when he responds with "I don't know" or "this is fine," she dumps him. Joey, often simply puzzled, reports he and Sherry liked sex and keeping the house neat -- their living room was painted five times one year, so he can't fathom why she walks out. That's the way it continues with Joey, whose quiet life in an Eden about to be raped by greedy developers seems just one damned thing after another.

Bemused by the abrupt interest he arouses in a woman he's known for years -- Felicity, the unhappy married daughter of his business partner -- Joey allows her to sweep him into a noncommittal affair. Jane Smiley would have us believe that Joey may be unexciting in the rest of life, but in several beds, on his office floor, in his car, he is incandescent, revealing sexual virtuosity of which we are spared little.

When a fast-talking former IRS agent turns up in town, dazzling the provincials with visions of instant wealth, any reader would know from the start he's a fake, a snake-oil salesman without the charm that usually comes with that sleazy territory. How come Joey and his colleagues don't smell a rat? Not one undertakes even elementary investigation of Marcus Burns -- and all of them bank officers, contractors, investors -- blithely sign on to Burns' real estate scam and even wilder ventures.

Greed may be blind, but it is unbelievable when portrayed as quite this dumb. The perpetrator has more energy and gall than his victims, but he's uninventive, third-rate, not an interesting villain. When his scheme predictably explodes, Burns and his co-conspirator sister disappear. So conveniently do Felicity and her husband. Only the CEO who's looted the local savings bank goes to jail. In this post-Enron age, all the numbers seem pitifully small, not worth the fuss. It is moreover difficult to feel much sympathy for patsies who are hardly widows and orphans. When finally a chastened and considerably poorer Joey, nearing 50, still selling real estate, living with his parents, encounters now-divorced Felicity at a winter resort, he experiences a belated epiphany and skis after her in hot pursuit. The pursuit of happiness, of Felicity. Get it?

A.J. Sherman, formerly an investment banker in New York and London, is a foundation executive and philanthropic consultant. A writer and an associate fellow of St. Antony's College, Oxford, he lives in Vermont. His latest book is Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine, 1918-1948.

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