Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1791
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 like they [her husband and sons] do—getting up every morning and saying to myself, What would be fun today? and then going out and doing it. I’m telling you, the house doesn’t look great, but everyone is a lot happier.”
Joey’s response to this attitude plays itself out in his new approach to life and eventually becomes relative to his reaction to the protagonist of the novel, Marcus Burns. In some ways, Marcus epitomizes all that might have constituted greed in the 1980’s. He has worked for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and has seen what others make and how they hide their money. He has also grown tired of having ideas for making money without testing them. This attitude marks his personality and allows him to penetrate Joey’s easygoing facade. Marcus needs a patsy, and Joey has all the character traits of one. Just as Marcus represents a “something for nothing” approach to life, a devil’s deal, Smiley has Joey serve as stand-in for the “average Joe,” the person trying to make a good living and trying to do the right thing. Inevitably, Joey proves easily manipulated as Marcus’s ideas become too good to pass up.
Smiley seduces the reader just as easily as Marcus seduces Joey. The seduction begins when Marcus tries to weasel out of a deal with temperamental house builder Gottfried Nuelle. As Nuelle’s listing agent, Joey rises to Marcus’s challenge and cleverly works a deal whereby all are satisfied. Following this beginning stratagem, Joey becomes more and more fascinated with the world of Marcus Burns.
Joey must learn to work with Marcus when he discovers that the latter has used Felicity’s younger brother Bobby to ingratiate himself with Gordon Baldwin. Before Joey knows it, Marcus has gotten Gordon to change his plans about a high-priced condominium development, raising prices and adding flourishes in order to make more money. As these deals flourish, more people become convinced that Marcus has the magic touch for making money. Thus, when he suggests the joint purchase of Salt Key Farm, a large farm owned by local dignitaries, people are more likely to fall in with his plans. When he wants to open an office, put together plans to develop the farm after its purchase, and bring his sister in from the Midwest, everyone is convinced that money will be made—from the local zoning board to the savings and loan president on down to Gordon Baldwin.
After Joey’s initial investment in Marcus’s plan of risky development, his “goodness” gets taxed in more demonstrable fashions. When Felicity’s husband, the rather earnest Hank Ornquist, questions Joey about the efficacy of developing this particularly scenic area, Joey does not even consider canceling the deal. Even as his affair with Felicity becomes tarnished while he spends more time with Marcus, he does not realize the effects his new friendship and “deal” are having on his life.
In chronicling Joey’s slow descent into the miasma of get-rich-quick thinking, Smiley does not lace the novel with all of the excesses of the period. Though Joey does briefly date a young divorcée from Spain who has a cocaine addiction, he does not fall victim to that sort of addictive thinking. Nor does Joey imagine spending his money in any way that appears to be lavish. Marcus lures Joey into the lifestyle by lavishing attention on him, by finding the spot where he is most gullible, by tapping into his self-image of the “good boy.”
As Marcus leads Joey into thinking he is indispensable to the deal, Joey becomes more keen to give up things for Marcus—his real estate job, his other properties as collateral, his girlfriend, even the last reserve money, which Marcus shames him into handing over before he takes off with all of the money. Even after Marcus’s sister, Jane, insists the group will pay his bills out of the money that has been pulled to start the development, Joey does not get suspicious when these bills go unpaid.
Though many of Marcus’s ploys seem problematic—he is not forthcoming about his upbringing, his relationship with his sister, his marriage, or his monetary qualifications—Joey does not doubt that Marcus has everyone’s best interest at heart. Even when Gordon and his family begin to see that Marcus is not getting things done in a timely manner, Joey still imagines that things will work out.
Smiley infuses the novel with enough hints that the reader soon realizes Joey has given up too much to someone about whom he knows so little. By the end of the novel, the tension between what Joey does not know and what the reader surmises makes for much of the movement of the plot. As Joey sinks deeper and deeper into Marcus’s plan for Salt Key, the reader both sympathizes with Joey’s naiveté and feels manhandled by Marcus’s greed and lack of integrity.
Even after Joey loses everything, including Felicity (who runs off with Marcus, his sister, and all of their money), Joey persists in his goodness. He spends more time with his family, goes back to work, and, in effect, pays a kind of penance for his misplaced faith in Marcus Burns and all that his deal embodied. Perhaps because Joey is good, after all, Smiley allows Good Faith to end on a felicitous note. By allowing Joey to “find” Felicity, his lost passion, once more, Smiley suggests that neither narrowness nor naiveté make the man. Rather, Joey must learn to place his faith in things less tangible than real estate.
Booklist 99, no. 9/10 (Januray 1-15, 2003): 808.
Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 1 (January, 2003): 22.
Library Journal 128, no. 16 (October 1, 2003): 132-133.
Los Angeles Times, June 17, 2003, p. E1.
The New York Times, April 22, 2003, p. E8.
The New York Times Book Review 152, no. 52466 (April 27, 2003): 10.
Publishers Weekly 250, no. 7 (February 17, 2003): 56.
Time 161, no. 16 (April 21, 2003): 74.
The Times Literary Supplement, August 15, 2003, 20.
The Wall Street Journal, May 2, 2003, p. W8.
Women’s Review of Books 20, no. 7 (April, 2003): 16-17.