Whatever happened to buy low, sell high?" a character asks near the middle of Jane Smiley's newest novel, Good Faith. The book is set in a mid-sized East Coast community right when Reagan was rewriting the tax code, making everything money, and giving the luster of profitability to almost any venture. As Marcus Burns, the story's fiscal prophet says: "There is just a deal. Big deal, little deal, all deals are the same size."
Along with Burns, who is a brilliant mix of charlatan and progressive innocent, Smiley has populated Good Faith with a mix of smugly comfortable types (the kind who might prosaically "end up in the Junior League in some secondary town") and charmingly idiosyncratic types (the ones who got caught up in the new economy due to their children). Everything is both idyllic and recognizable.
But Smiley is a master of the slow burn. The tension in her work, like that other chronicler of psychological economy, Henry James, is between the characters and the setting. One must always succumb to the other. Unlike James, however, who hid his characters' crises beneath old-world civility, Smiley buries hers under middle-class American values. So the familiar and comfortable details in Good Faith accumulate, distracting us from the mounting tragedies.
Occasionally, though, the irony becomes pungent. "There's a lot more money than there are good investments, or even investments at all, even bad investments," a character states. This is more than contrasting the reader's era -- when we have had too many investments with too little money -- with the past. Smiley puts the word 'even' in her dialogue, changing it from an intensive to an adjective that means balanced. It takes a writer as cheerfully wicked as Smiley to put the idea of balanced bad investment in front of us in the midst of the Enron era.
Good Faith has a beautiful setup, and it is carried forward with effortless virtuosity by Smiley, who can write about economics as though it was a fully developed character. Unfortunately, the end of the book is rushed, leaving readers to wonder what they missed. While this breathless inexplicability is similar to what the characters feel at the end of the story, it isn't satisfying. Economy is one thing, but when a writer is as good as Smiley, a little indulgence is in order.