Back to some forgotten
elements of the 1980s
I’ve read four of Jane Smiley’s novels: A Thousand Acres (1991), Duplicate Keys (1984), Moo (1995), and, most recently, Good Faith (2003). Over a thirty-five year career, she’s written fiction, non-fiction, critical studies (Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel from 2005 is an excellent primer for anyone interested in how writers create fiction), and young adult novels. She has set books in New York’s Lower East Side in the 1970s, Greenland in the Middle Ages, a Midwestern flagship research university, an Iowa farm, Beverly Hills, and other far-flung places. She’s moved among many genres: the psychological thriller, the campus novel, the family saga, the comedy of manners, and short story collections. She’s wrestled with both Shakespeare and Boccaccio in specific works patterned on theirs.
|Lower Manhattan's Financial Center|
What I’m trying to say is that she’s one of the most versatile of writers. Good Faith takes on the simmering economic mania of the 1980s when real estate began booming, Treasury bills – good ol’ T-Bills that were previously ignored in the popular consciousness – became a commodity, portfolios turned into bargaining chips for borrowing ever greater amounts of money that eventually would not be paid back, and savings & loans morphed from milk and cookies institutions into something resembling economic cocaine. At the dawn of the ‘80s, cocaine was just a party drug; its full destructiveness wasn’t understood until the late ‘80s, which was when the ‘trickle down’ economy first crashed because borrowers had kicked the can until it boomeranged as a crushing boulder. I remember the gold and silver markets being tended daily by the media in the late ‘70s, rather than the early ‘80s, but I’m sure Smiley’s research backs up her story.
Good Faith begins in 1982 and ends in 1984 just as Americans looked towards ‘a new day’ after the final hangover of the Carter administration. Smiley’s novel could be a cautionary tale for middle-class, small city/exurbia America of the mid-1980s, but it’s actually a look back from the vantage point of the 2001 post-9/11 economic ‘correction.’ Smiley
|The Reagon Era|
captures the sensibility of the early Reagan era without ever dressing up the narrative with period pop culture details, which is a mightily disciplined feat. Good Faith percolates along as the reader wonders whether Marcus Burns, the second main character, is a rainmaker or a charlatan or an out-and-out con artist. Shaw would have loved this guy, especially as he explains how the federal government’s policy changes in taxes, savings & loans, and various other industries would free up money to grow and grow (though only for those with yachts in the harbor, not the rowboat owners that found themselves metaphorically stuck in the mud when the economic tide rolled out).
What’s most compelling about Smiley’s novels is how she raises big questions as her subtext, rather than as the actual plot. A Thousand Acres re-examines the story of King Lear, but touches upon progressive farming practices, while the main characters act from, but rarely articulate, the effects of child sexual abuse. Moo presents a large university that could be located in a town like Ames, IA, or Bloomington, IN, or Falcon Heights, MN, but the underlying dichotomy concerns the attitudes of the Silent Generation administration, the ‘don’t trust anyone over thirty’ Baby Boomer faculty and staff in middle age contrasted with the pragmatism and lowered expectations of the Generation X students. When Good Faith
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concentrates on an extended entrepreneurial family in a smaller city somewhere within a couple hours drive from New York City, though we’re never quite sure where, it really bubbles.
I haven’t read The Greenlanders (1988), which Jonathan Franzen thinks is one of the most under-appreciated contemporary American novels, but those I’ve read usually feel like they’re in the Midwest or the Plains states. Even Duplicate Keys, which hinges on a harrowing sequence where the main character believes a suspected killer is quietly burglarizing her in the middle of the night, doesn’t exactly capture NYC in the late ‘70s. It could be any big American city and since the plot revolves around the music industry, it might as well be L.A. or Nashville except for the fact that the main characters walk everywhere and that’s very significant in the book.
Locale is not a strong element of Smiley’s writing, though research is omnipresent. Actually, there’s so much information about how money works in Good Faith that I felt I was trapped in an Arthur Hailey novel like The Moneychangers (1975) or Airport (1968), where it was always publicized how many interviews he’d conducted, though he still ended up with cliché-driven plots and stick figure characters. Only Maureen Stapleton and Lee Remick were able to breathe any kind of life into the screen adaptations of his books. Smiley is in a different class of writer from Hailey in quality, but perhaps not in terms of intention. However, she doesn’t sell anywhere near like he did.. Even though A Thousand Acres was celebrated in its day, Lorrie Moore chose it as a current unjustly overlooked book in the May 2015 O magazine.
When Carole and I were chatting about writers a couple of weeks ago and I mentioned Smiley, she said, “Oh I got through ten acres of her big one and gave up.” I posited that it was because of Smiley’s writing style. It’s understated to the point of bland. She strips some of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style to their basic points and dissipates – actually, she pretty much erases – a strong individual voice. Here’s the opening:
This would be ’82. I was out at the Viceroy with Bobby Baldwin. Bobby Baldwin was my one employee, which made us not quite friends, but we went out to the Viceroy almost every night. My marriage was finished and his hadn’t started, so we spent a lot of time together that most everyone else we knew was spending with their families. I didn’t mind. My business card had the Viceroy’s number in the corner under “may also be reached at.”
This could be the start of an updated private eye thriller or a literary equivalent to Cheers, which also premiered in 1982. Instead, the Baldwin family members give it a sense of the wild, idiosyncratic hilarities of a Preston Sturges movie. That’s the greatest attraction, rather than the gentle Mephistophelian comedy Smiley is more intent upon engineering through a narrator who isn’t very dramatic.