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Good Faith by Jane Smiley


Rating: (Recommended)


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Real Estate

If you liked Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, you’ll probably love her new novel, Good Faith. The levels of meaning are wide and deep in this well-written book. Real estate agent and protagonist Joe Stratford, accepts good faith deposits from the buyers of houses he sells. He places faith in a newcomer to town, Marcus Burns, and Joe is surprised when he learns how Marcus returns Joe’s confidence. There’s a smarmy S&L in this tale, set in the high-flying real estate boom of the 1980s. Personal relationships are complicated, and the nature of what characters believe and count on changes as the story unfolds. Here’s an excerpt (pp. 280-83):

On Monday, I gave Jane the list of names. She looked it over, and then I said, "Do tell me, Jane, what the point of these real estate investment trusts is."

"Well, I think the real point is cash flow."

"Yes, but, pardon me for asking, what do the investors get fot their money?"

"I'm sure, in the end, some of them hope to profit."

"In the end?"

"Well, think of it as a sort of junk bond. High risk, big payoff. Most people who have plenty of money to invest understand that. Believe me, we are not going after little old ladies on widows' pensions. That's a game for the S and Ls."

"Excuse me?"

"Oh, you know, bundling passbook savings accounts and selling them to other institutions that are paying a quarter of a point higher interest. Or less than that. I'm sure that's what Crosbie is doing. That merger hasn't gone through yet, but they're rolling in dough. Not just investments, either, but a flood of deposits. I guess they raised payouts by a quarter of a point or something, and some deposit brokers started sending them more deposits than they can have on the books and still look good. Crosbie came to Marcus just the other day and asked if we have any other properties anywhere." She shrugged. "And what else did he say? Something about how Portsmouth Savings was thinking of getting into T-biU futures or even junk bonds. It's a new world,that's for sure."

"I'm not sure Bart is ready for the new world, Jane."

"Who is? I've been doing finance and investment for fifteen years, and I'm not ready for other people's junk bonds. Most junk bonds are pure roulette, is what I told Marcus. There's no way to judge their value except by some kind of intuition. Marcus says they have no real value, only market value, and I understand that in principle, but I don't know. I suppose I'm lucky to find myself here in this little office in a little town with a tangible asset on my hands."

"It's a good asset."

"I know you think that, Joe, and when I wake up in the night, I remember that you think that and I can actually get back to sleep."

I stared at her.

"Anyway, Bart doesn't have to deal with that end of the business.

As long as they keep doing a few residential mortgages, he'll have something to do. But listen. These trust people aren't like buyers. You know, I know a woman who went into the horse business. She bought two miniature horses. You know what they look like? About the size of Great Danes, or even golden retrievers, if you're lucky. Anyway, they graze out on her lawn, and she deducts everything—part of her mortgage payment, her lawn maintenance costs, her house maintenance costs. I mean, she's in the horse business. She doesn't have to make a profit for seven years. By that time she will have saved a small fortune in taxes."

"I hope we make a profit before seven years is out."

"Me, too, but these guys"—she gestured at the list of investors—"they don't care one way or the other. They have to have losses too. So we can do that for them. Profit and loss; both are services in the end." She smiled.

She seemed in a good mood, so I hazarded a question. "Did you know Marcus was leaving the IRS, or was it sudden?"

"Oh, God, Marcus complained about working there so much, it was me who told him he had to get out. It took him a year to make up his mind. Between you and me, I don't think he ever would have left if he thought he could get promoted, but after the election, he bet me that there would be cutbacks, and sure enough there were, and that was it for him." She grinned. "Marcus is always ready to sell himself to the highest bidder, even if the bid isn't very high."

"You have a very jaded view, Jane."

"Yes. I'm so smart, why aren’t I rich?"

We laughed.


A couple of days later, I ran into Bart. He was coming out of a travel agency right next to the drugstore I was going into. He waved his tickets in my face and said, "Whatcha doing?"

"Buying some Pepto-Bismol for my mother. What are you doing?"

"Going to France. Everyone. The whole family. Two weeks. We leave tomorrow, and we're flying first class. It was Crosbie's suggestion. I mean, he said, you know, time to give the place a little style. No more bow ties."

"Are you taking my money with you?"


Bart laughed. "You won't believe this, but no. Crosbie gave me a little bonus. Well, not only me. All the vice presidents. We had some investments that paid off."

"What were they?"

"Let's see. Oh, yeah. T-bill futures. See you in a couple of weeks!"

He jumped in his car and drove off.

Smiley’s writing continues to be superb, and these characters are memorable. Take it on Good Faith and enjoy reading it. You’ll come away thinking about greed, community, charlatans, and human nature.

Steve Hopkins, May 27, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the June 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Faith.htm


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