(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Joey Stratford, the first-person narrator of Jane Smiley’s Good Faith, is basically a good guy—a little boring, perhaps, but basically good. He gets his good qualities from his progenitors: His parents raised him right. They belong to an unnamed but decidedly unorthodox religious sect which requires them to pray far more than the average churchgoers and to eschew many worldly possessions. Because Joey grows up in a household where denial is deemed a virtue, his morality stays firmly in place. In his parents’ attempt to limit their attachment to this world, however, they also limit their contact with the world around them, including their son. The house is too clean. Members of the family do not touch or laugh. They have faith in the afterworld and faith in themselves but little faith in anything outside their narrow view.

True to his good character, Joey does not systematically reject his parents, even though he does reject their faith. He is a good son. He cleans out their rain gutters and brings them treats at Thanksgiving. Joey’s innate goodness makes Jane Smiley’s novel Good Faith work. If he were any less than a good guy, the reader would give up on the novel and let him wallow in his own stupid decisions.

At the beginning of the novel, Joey has few decisions to make. His most important life change occurs when he falls in with the happy-go-lucky Baldwin family. Even this “choice” does not reflect a true option on his part: When he dates Sally Baldwin, one of the Baldwin daughters, she takes over his life and directs its path. She is bossy but in a well-meaning way, and one gets the impression that Joey would have been a different person without her. She, in effect, breaks his ties with his family and shows him what it is like to live within a larger, warmer world. Unfortunately, she dies in a car crash, and Joey must accept the only substitute for Sally—a proxy adoption by her family when her father, real estate entrepreneur Gordon Baldwin, pulls Joey out of college to work for him.

One could assume that placement in this wider network of family and colleagues might alter Joey to some degree, but it does not. He persists in his course of narrowness. He marries Sherry, a well-meaning woman who likes sex and enjoys cooking, traits that Joey imagines would make any other man happy. After their divorce, however, he looks back on his marriage with bemusement and critical distance, realizing that he and Sherry had become the kind of couple who would paint a room many times in a slightly different color and notice the difference each time. As Joey puts, “It seemed to me . . . that there hadn’t even been a marriage—only, perhaps, this woman I knew who didn’t quite fit in with the Baldwins, my real family.”

Another reason one might be inclined to like Joey, despite this narrowness, resides in the fact that Smiley lets him tell his own story. As he does so, the author never allows him to become sniveling or overly simple. He is a small-town guy living a mediocre, small-town life. He has a good job, lives in a nice condo, drives a different used car every year. His life’s course has been set. He does not even know what he might be missing.

Smiley then infuses Joey’s life with a series of events that tests his goodness and faith by his own standards and the standards of others. He begins a rather heated affair with his dead lover’s married sister, Felicity Ornquist. One of the few plot flaws in the novel occurs at the onset of this affair. Though Smiley provides a great deal of exposition about the Baldwins at the outset of the novel, she does not adequately prepare the reader for the beginning of such an important affair. Felicity, rather conveniently, approaches Joey at the Viceroy, the local bar, and whispers into his ear that she has “been flirting with you for a long time.” Before the chapter ends, the two are back at his place.

Despite the deus ex machina nature of Felicity’s attachment to Joey, the intensity of the affair and the way it changes Joey are necessary for the movement of the plot. Felicity brings to Joey a kind of spontaneity and zest for living that he has not felt before. He even sees her inattention to the upkeep of her house as a sign of her passion, a passion that he and his first wife missed in their attention to detail. As Felicity tells him: “So I started living...

(The entire section is 1791 words.)