I hate to admit it, but the Trump presidency has seeped into everything I read. The guy is so toxic he pollutes even books from the past. Now, everything seems like a warning or a prophecy from Cassandra, another example of how bad humans can really be and how bad things can get. Some of my favorite authors are being ruined for me. How can I go back to Stefan Zweig and his books set in Germany and Austria in the early 1920s without drowning in dread? But also, some of my favorite authors are becoming more poignant, more prescient in this current political climate. This is especially true for Jane Smiley and her 2003 novel "Good Faith."
"Good Faith" is set in 1982, the same year Congress deregulated the Savings & Loan industry. It’s narrated by Joe Stratford, an affable realtor in a small eastern Pennsylvania town. Joe is newly divorced and has recently weathered an economic downturn. The novel starts just as things are looking up for Joe. He gets into a new relationship, the economy is picking up and he’s making money again, and something that looks like a great opportunity has just surfaced. Joe’s mentor and father figure, Gordon Baldwin, has been approached by Jacob Thorpe, the local one-percenter, about buying Thorpe’s ancestral estate, Salt Key. The deal Jacob makes Gordon is too good to pass up. Jacob is at the end of his life and doesn’t want Salt Key going to any other Thorpe, but he also anticipates legal challenges to his will. So he decides he’ll put the property on the market for twice its value. This will give his family a chance to buy it at a ridiculous price. When they don’t, Jacob will sell it to Gordon for half the asking price. Gordon gets Joe to list the house.
What starts as a good deal for Joe and Gordon—even if Gordon is getting a house a little beyond what he can afford—escalates when Marcus Burns gets involved. Marcus has recently moved to this town. He’d worked for the IRS, knows all the ways to avoid paying taxes and hates paying taxes. The key, he explains, is to always use other people’s money, always increase your debt. This way, you have no income to show and no income to tax, but you have plenty of everything. Together, Joe, Gordon and Marcus form a corporation to turn Salt Key into a golf course and housing development.
Throughout the novel, Marcus is an enjoyable character. He’s funny and charming. So, in these respects, he’s no Donald Trump. But, like Trump, he takes lying to a new level. He seems to believe his own lies as he tells them. He only tells people what he thinks they want to hear, and he has no sense of responsibility or accountability. Also, when he gets caught in a lie, he deflects but never apologizes. His very last name seems to be a warning that no one takes. Like Trump, Marcus couldn’t get away with it if not for people like Joe and Gordon, who lend him their credibility.
Joe, Gordon and Marcus go deeper and deeper into the Salt Key estate. They leverage everything they have and take out gigantic loans from the local S&L, which is leveraging everything it has. All the chips are on the table early. Smiley winks at the reader, daring them to ask, how will it all end?
Well, because the book was written two decades after the events in the book, we know that the Savings & Loan industry will tank, taking much of the national economy with it. But, if you’ve ever read a Jane Smiley book, you also know she’s willing to go all in for a happy ending. She’s a genius at satire, and part of her genius is a willingness to abandon any deeper lesson or theme if that’s what makes her characters more real and relatable. So, when you read the book, you don’t know how it will end. Maybe all of Marcus’s lies will lead to something great. Maybe the con man isn’t conning us. Maybe we’re in it with him: accomplices, not victims. Then again, maybe the rich are rich not because they’re smarter than us or work harder or have more courage or just knew when to lean in, but because they’re more selfish, stingy and calculating than us. Maybe massive wealth shouldn’t be something we admire in this culture. Maybe we should recognize it as sociopathic.
"Good Faith" raises all these questions in a funny and sweet novel, and it’s even more poignant when you consider it was written about deregulation of the banking industry causing a massive economic crash in the ‘80s and ‘90s and written at a time when banking deregulation was about to cause the Great Recession. At a time when banks have again become deregulated, we can read it more critically. It almost feels like we’re in Troy when Cassandra tells King Priam, “Don’t let that Trojan Horse in.” And Priam says, “No. Open the gates. What’s the worst that could happen?”