SPOILER ALERT: There are spoilers in this review.
Presidential candidates invoke the name of Ronald Reagan often in this political season. Pols look back with reverence on Reagan and associate themselves with his formidable political skills. Jane Smiley’s 2003 novel, “Good Faith,” focuses on the dark side of the Reagan years.
Set in a rural rust-belt community somewhere in eastern Pennsylvania, “Good Faith” is the classic con man tale. Joe Stafford, the protagonist and lifelong resident of the town, is a popular, respected real estate broker. A divorced man in his 40s, Stafford sells houses built by his mentor, Gordon Baldwin, a wily contractor and businessman with a wide portfolio. Baldwin is a self-made man who espouses old school values.
As Stafford adjusts to single life in his 40s, his only source of stress is to figure out new ways to keep secret his affair with Baldwin’s married daughter, Felicity (I love the names Smile gives to her characters) in this small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business.
Financially, Stafford and Baldwin are doing just fine, but they know they are small-town cronies. So, when they have a chance to get filthy rich, they can’t resist. The MacGuffin in this story is an offer Baldwin receives to buy the 580-acre Salt Key Farm for a sprawling multi-use development. That’s when wild dreams of obscene wealth fill the heads of Stafford and Baldwin. Enter Marcus Burns, a former IRS agent who moves to town and befriends both Stafford and Baldwin. Burns has found a way to make Baldwin’s $275,000 tax debt to the IRS go away and he convinces the two men to allow him to manage the Salt Key Farm development.
Burns tips his business partners off that things are about to change in the 1980s. “And believe you me, 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.” Burns convinces Stafford he will make millions.
“Money these days is like water. It can’t stop looking for places to go, Burns tells Stafford.
Burns is a charmer. He knows what button to push to ingratiate himself with the townspeople. He is an amiable Irishman who has survived a bad childhood and has worked tirelessly to make himself a success. If he sounds like Reagan it’s no accident.
Of course, like many real estate schemes of the 1980s, this one doesn’t end well. Burns swindles a huge loan out of a high flying Savings & Loan to finance the project, borrows Stafford’s nest egg and skips. town. And he whisks away Felicity to boot. While this is clearly a morality tale, it is also a well-paced, richly detailed story wtih a strong ensemble cast. Despite its dark subject, it is told with Smiley’s classic dry wit.
Beyond the political lesson, Smiley also leaves broader lessons about human nature, temptation and greed. As Stafford reflects on his experience he recalls, “Looking back, I would have to say that’s when the Eighties began as far as I was concerned — when modest housing in our rust-belt state got decked out with Italian marble.”