Dream homes for sale

Jane Smiley watches the 1980s real estate market take off - and collapse

No one should turn to Mark Twain for financial advice. But the man who managed to lose at least two fortunes did famously and wisely recommend buying real estate: "God's not making any more of it."

Fortunately, the supply of novels about real estate is still strong. Richard Ford's "Independence Day" and Steven Millhauser's "Martin Dressler" both won Pulitzer Prizes, and Tom Wolfe's mansion, "A Man in Full," should have.

With Jane Smiley's new novel, another prime parcel has come on to the market. There may not be a thousand acres here, but it's still a major piece of literary property. Everything about "Good Faith" is in perfect move-in condition, which is a relief after the string of white elephants she's put up for sale lately. First, it's a manageable size, with just a small collection of expertly drawn characters. Second, all of these characters are people - no cows and pigs ("Moo") or studs and mares ("Horse Heaven"). And finally, it's a novel constructed without any prefab components ("Adventures of Lidie Newton").

Of course, "Good Faith" displays all the remarkable attention to detail that's the hallmark of Smiley's work. Her subject this time is the 1980s real estate boom, along with the savings and loan debacle. Clearly, she's earned an agent's license and probably degrees in accounting and engineering along the way, but all that technical homework is subordinated to the needs of the story. She no longer sounds like a brilliant, tiresome student angling for an A++ by cramming in every last bit of impressive research.

Indeed, despite the flashy context - billions created and billions lost in the nation's most spectacular financial bubble - Smiley keeps "Good Faith" tightly focused on a single real estate agent in a small New England town. Joe Stratford, the narrator, is a careful, honest man, the kind of agent who makes a living by looking out for his clients' best interests, understanding their concerns, enduring their rants, and soothing their anxieties.

He was raised by righteous, hardworking parents, members of a small, rapidly shrinking Christian sect. But since high school, Joe has felt like a son to Gordon Baldwin, a classic wheeler-dealer, generous to a fault with friends and family, but always looking to take advantage of everyone he negotiates with.

Joe lives modestly and neatly, and radiates integrity with every handshake, while Gordon struts through all the trappings of wealth, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and tax court. Together they've developed a symbiotic relationship: Gordon keeps Joe supplied with new houses to sell, and Joe keeps Gordon honest.

All that changes with the arrival of Marcus Burns, an ex-IRS agent who swoops into town and mesmerizes everyone. He's a prophet of the inflationary economy, preaching a doctrine of leveraged financing that sounds like voodoo economics to Joe. But with a phone call to old colleagues, Marcus makes Gordon's tax problems disappear. And then he has such creative ideas about how to enhance Gordon's latest subdivision project. "I would have to say that that's when the '80s began," Joe recalls, "the first week in June 1982, when modest housing in our rust-belt state got decked out with Italian tile."

He retains his skepticism, but Marcus has a pouch full of pixie dust, and before long a new partnership arises from Gordon's money, Joe's good name, and Marcus's irrational exuberance. "It's like everything in the world all of a sudden turned into money," Marcus tells them breathlessly.

The excesses of this era were so ludicrous that it would have been natural for Smiley to slip into parody. She can do that well, and it's easy now to laugh at the Laffer curve, to be tickled by trickledown theory. There's plenty of wit here, but this is a novel of admirable restraint. She doesn't want to satirize the gassy atmosphere that inflated markets and S&Ls to the breaking point. She wants to observe the moral effect of these lavish new dreams on ordinary human beings, and she does so with captivating insight and gentleness.

Marcus is such a troubled, troubling character, a man who evaluates everything from his tie to his wife for its dealmaking potential. He's simultaneously perceptive and deluded, permanently fixed in the patter of a get-rich infomercial.

When Joe asks in a friendly way about his experience in real estate, Marcus doesn't miss a beat. "This is the eighties," he shoots back. "Experience doesn't count anymore. It's just a drag on you, because if you make decisions according to your experience, you will have no idea what is happening in this country."

Guided by Marcus's vision, reassured by his confidence that the old rules don't apply anymore, Joe and Gordon overextend themselves to buy an enormous estate from one of the region's wealthiest families to construct a lavish community in the middle of nowhere. By Marcus's logic - backed by an eager new S&L president - the partnership can borrow its way out of debt, becoming in the process too big to fail. (Remember when those ideas sounded so comforting?)

Though buoyed by visions of billions - "Billions, not millions," Marcus insists - Joe finds himself suffering from a kind of loneliness he can barely articulate. A steamy affair (explicitly detailed) with one of Gordon's married daughters excites him for a while, but he may have imbibed too much of Marcus's ethic to actually fall in love.

Ultimately, it's clear that the great tragedy of this period for Joe is the loss of emotional, not financial opportunity. Readers over 30 know his real estate project will fail, along with the nation's banking system, but the value of an average joe's character requires a risk/reward evaluation that only a fine novel can calculate. Smiley has invested her best talent in this work, and you can buy it in good faith.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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