Saturday, March 18, 2017

Good Faith by Jane Smiley

This one was a headscratcher. Look at the cover. What gender would you guess the novel’s protagonist is?

Wrong.

Joe Stratford makes an honest living helping nice people buy and sell nice houses. It’s 1982 and Marcus Burns, Joe’s new friend from New York, says the old rules are ready to be broken. But are his ideas about how to get rich too big and risky for Joe? And is Felicity--winning, free-spirited (and already married)--really the one he’s been waiting for?

That’s from the blurb on the back cover. But Joe Stratford is an odd kind of man. He is our first-person narrator, so everything we read is the dialogue that’s happening in his head. And there he thinks about “making love” to women, about the “espadrilles” some of them wear on their feet, and the “Cole of California” bathing suits others of them don at pool parties. Odd word choices like these, obviously and easily tripping off the top of the female author’s head, occur with surprising frequency.

But the problems go much deeper than that. Joe and Marcus, and most of the other men in this novel, spend a tremendous amount of time thinking, but more revealingly, talking and talking and talking about their relationships with women.

When Marcus heard I was taking Susan Webster to a movie, he came into my office and leaned against the edge of a table I had beside the window. He crossed his arms over his chest and grinned at me. “She called Linda, you know. She called--before you ever called her--and said you were cute.”

“I am cute. They’ve been saying I am cute for years. Cute but untrustworthy. Skittish. It’s a good thing Susan Webster was living in Spain for ten years, because maybe she doesn’t realize what a known quantity I am in these parts.” Was this true? I hadn’t thought of it before, but it seemed true as I said it. “And there’s a whole group of Sherry’s friends who have really got my number.”

“But I’m telling you--I’ve been telling you all along--no man is a hero in his own hometown. This is a turning point for you. This girl is a really unusual combination of sophistication and sweetness. It’s like she turned twenty and then got put away for ten years. She’s behind the times, but she knows lots of things. She’s a prize.”

“I’m not disagreeing with you, Marcus. But what about the humble shortcomings of yours truly?”

“That’s the beauty part. She tried the exotic and it was wrong. She tried someone her own age, and it didn’t work out. Now she’s looking for something homegrown and more mature.”

“We’ll see. We haven’t even gone out. I’ve never been alone with her.”

“I don’t know that you should be alone with her. You know, arranged marriages in Japan and places like that work out fine. Just as well as American marriages, in general, or better. It’s a marriage, for God’s sake! It’s a formal arrangement for which there are numerous models. It’s like any other contract. You follow the rules, and it works well enough.”

I thought of Mary King.

“And the difference between well enough and great isn’t very much, in the end. When kids come along, they take so much of your attention, you can’t really tell the difference, and when they’re gone you have to start over anyway. I think myself that people take all of this much too seriously. Life is too short. That’s what rules are for, so you don’t have to reinvent everything.”

“Easy for you to talk.”

“Do you doubt what I’m saying? You know, I do want to meet your parents, because they must be really good parents or you wouldn’t have such a romantic idea about marriage at this point in your life.”

“My parents are the perfect example of the idea that you can live up to your ideals every single day of your life, absolutely follow the book, and still get the wrong child.”

He laughed. Then he looked at me and laughed again. He said, “Well, look at Jane and me and my sisters. My parents broke every rule in the book and got four bonus babies--no drunks, no shirkers, no ne’er-do-wells.” He shook his head.

I said, “Jane said you have a brother.”

His grin vanished and he stared at me, then broke his gaze and said, “Sorry. Yes, of course we do. I’ve pretended for so long that he’s just another one of my father’s brothers that I let myself forget about him. He was a scary one. Animal torturer and all. Jane says he wasn’t that bad, but he was frightening to me.” Marcus sighed. “I was so glad Amanda was a girl. And then I was even gladder that Justin was a sweet-natured kid. Still is. Anyway--”

“Anyway, if I follow the marital rules, everything will be fine.”

“As long as you make a rational choice, and, provisionally, Susan Webster looks like a rational choice. I also don’t hold with deciding yes or no early on. Some people, they go out with someone once and they already know whether they’re going to marry that person or not. Very dumb. Not only are you likely to say yes unwisely, you’re even more likely to exclude good candidates before you’ve really gotten to know them. So I’m not urging you to decide prematurely--just to recognize that, for now, Susan Webster looks very good.” And then the phone rang and Marcus left and it was Betty calling.

And on and on and on. The pages keep turning but very little happens other than this eternal dialogue about who is and isn’t good enough. These are not men. These are women--and maybe they were women in the novel’s first draft. My god, in one scene Smiley even has Joe turning on his [high?] heel and stomping out of the room.

It was all to distracting for me to enjoy anything else about the novel.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at eric.lanke@gmail.com.

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