Good Faith By Jane Smiley

Too good to be a true estate agent
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The Independent Culture

There is surely a great novel to be written about the explosion of greed which hit Reaganite America and then blew just as disastrously across the ocean to Thatcherite Britain. A novel about how noble, genuinely philanthropic and public-minded institutions were raped for the sake of quick and easy profit-taking. And there are few greater scandals than the US Savings and Loan affair in which the American building societies were over-hastily deregulated by Washington: the eagle-eyed rich exploited the new "wealth- generating" loopholes and got massively richer and, of course, the poor got completely fleeced.

So my heart leapt when I heard that Jane Smiley was opting to tackle this complex and ungiving subject. She is, after all, a writer who doesn't blench to bring to life the intricacies of thoroughbred stud farming or the uneasy symbiosis of agribusiness and academia. But I'm just not sure that the resulting novel is the savage and satirical attack that the S&L scandal cries out for. Smiley is above all a storyteller, a writer who understands and loves her characters and wants us to understand and love them too. And though the wheedling, solipsistic Marcus Burns - former IRS auditor now a Reaganite slash'n'burner - is the natural route into her story of greedy fraudulence, it feels as though Smiley simply cannot bear to live for long inside such a corrupt soul.

Instead she takes us in through Joe Stratford, local realtor in the East Coast towns two hours south of New York. He is "the most utterly transparent person", yet he also can "make any deal work, because", as Burns is quick to tell him, "the thing that makes it work just comes to you, just floats into your mind... and you open your mouth and it floats out and it does work, but it doesn't surprise you at all."

Basically Joey's a nice guy (yes, I know he's an estate agent) who can close a deal without breaking sweat, yet has the integrity to advise a couple against buying one of his listings! Inevitable then that Burns, blowing into town, flush with cash and schemes, seeks out Joe - "we're going to work together perfectly... 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."

Until now Joe has been satisfied selling whatever comes along, whether it's Gottfried's handcrafted, architectural gems (Gottfried loathes his buyers, knowing they will desecrate his masterpieces) or Gordon's places, "where folks who've watched a lot of TV feel comfortable". But Marcus Burns has something altogether more grandiose in mind: a $2.5 million, leveraged purchase of Salt Key Farm from the ageing local quasi-Vanderbilts. And money's no problem, the local S&L (Dodgy Valuations Our Specialty) will lend it all, including the first year's interest payments. Gordon, Marcus and Joe are soon the powerhouse triumvirate, talking golf courses, saunas and billions (not millions) of dollars.

In fact, the only problem Joe can foresee is the revelation that he happens to be conducting a lust-driven affair with Felicity, Gordon's married daughter. And for a guy now in hock for $2.5m and treated by Gordon as his "elected son", this is surely an explosion waiting to happen.

Yet it never does. In fact, the affair - somewhat unearned in the first place, since Joe is targeted by Felicity as much as by Burns - simply peters out. And with it goes all the energy of the plotting. Marcus, bouncing round his empty office space, now wants to diversify into gold-trading - he's bored of waiting for zoning permits. And soon the urgent need which formerly drove Joe to give up his realty business disappears into the unpromising clay soil of Salt Key.

And from then on it's hard to know what exactly this book is about. Yes, the S&L ends up crashing - the warning omens were unmistakeable - but Smiley resists exploring this, making it all happen offstage. The final dénouement is equally predictable but born of standard cash-in-a-suitcase criminality rather than that special, decadent, unprosecutable, law-twisting which made the ReagoThatcherite era such a boom time for the well-connected and unscrupulous.

A few years ago Smiley chose Charles Dickens as her subject for a series of short, writers' biographies. This seemed thoroughly fitting, since both writers share a desire to lay bare, to shout about and yet also see the comedy in the politics of the world around them. So it's doubly disappointing that here, given the chance to play with truly Dickensian baddies, Smiley seems to lose her nerve at the last, as if too fastidious, scared or simply bored to tangle with their truly egotistical amorality.