dad used to wonder what the Baldwins' real name was. They weren't like
any Baldwins he had ever known. Gordon was loud and affectionate. Hey,
honey, he always said, no matter who he was talking to. He ate out every
night. He had three or four restaurants he took everyone to, owned by
his poker buddies, I think. He played poker twice a week, high stakes.
These games had been going for generations. For a living, he bought and
sold things. For a while, it was antiques; for a while, jewelry; for a
while, cars; for a while, expensive fixtures out of houses and restaurants
and hotels that were being torn down. Once in a while he would hear about
some hotel in the city that was going under, and he would come home with
a truckload of dishes or silver that carried a hotel monogram. One year,
his barn was full of pink silk chairs and settees from the lobby of a
hotel in Montreal. Another year he got a thousand commodes. That was the
year he persuaded everyone who bought a house from us that "you got to
have one more bathroom than the number of bedrooms. It's the wave of the
future." Always land and houses and dairy-cattle breeding stock. One thing
leads to another; that is, houses lead to commodes, and then commodes
lead to houses, which lead to land, which leads to dairy cattle, which
lead to cheese, which leads to pizza pies, which lead to manicotti and
veal Parmesan, which lead to wine, which leads to love, which leads to
babies, houses, and commodes. That was Gordon Baldwin in a nutshell.
My father, who didn't like anything to lead to anything else, because
of sin, couldn't decide whether the Baldwins had originally been "Obolenskis"
or "Balduccis" or "Baldagyis." He took solace in the fact that we were
Stratfords, always had been Stratfords; there was no misspelling of the
Stratford name since the Middle Ages. The Baldwins had come to town after
the war. That was all anyone knew; and for all that Gordon had gotten
rich and locally famous, and he, Bobby, and everyone else in the family
talked and talked, where the Baldwins had come from was something they
never talked about.
Anyway, I could hardly keep my eyes open, though it was only midnight,
early for a Baldwin, and Bobby was wide awake. He was drinking and playing
craps for pennies with a builder we knew. The bar was about half full.
It was a Wednesday. I said, "See you at ten."
Bobby said, "See that, a five and a three. That's eight."
"Bobby," I said. "Ten! I have to show a house at ten-fifteen and I want
to be sure you're there before I go."
"Ten," said Bobby.
"Ten in the morning."
"In the morning."
"Morning is when the sun is in the sky and you don't have to turn on your
"Got you. Roll 'em." He looked at me and smiled. He looked just like Betty.
I shook my head. As I passed next to the table right behind where we had
been sitting, I saw a guy look up, look at me. I went out into the parking
The parking lot of the Viceroy backed up on the river, the Nut. My condo
was in a development in a smaller town upriver, Nut Hollow. Instead of
getting right into my car, I walked down to the river and had a look at
the moon, which was shining round and bright. The river was black and
glassy around the circle of the moon for just a single long moment; then
the wind came up and ruffled the image. I saw there was a woman squatting
at the base of a tree, about ten yards from the river. When she turned
at my footsteps, I realized it was Fern Minette, Bobby's fiancee. She
stood up with a big smile, wiping her hands on her jeans. Fern was about
twenty-seven or so. She and Bobby had been engaged for four and a half
years. I said, "Well, it's Fern! What are you doing, Fernie?"
"You're trapping cats?"
"Well, my cat. He got out of the car when I took him to the grocery store
Friday." She pointed to a cat carrier with its door open, just barely
visible, in a cleft up the bank from the river. "I put things in there.
Liver. His toys. Last night he went in, but when I moved away from the
tree, he ran out again." She sighed.
I said, "Bobby's in the Viceroy. Maybe he would help you. He's not doing
"You can't help with a cat. A cat can't be herded, a cat has to be attracted.
I just can't figure out the thing that would do it, and as the nights
go by it gets harder. You should go away, anyway."
"Do you stay out here all night?"
"Till two. Then I come back at six. Go away! He might be watching me and
making up his mind!"
I got in my car and shut the door. When I turned on my headlights, Fern
waved, then hunkered down beside the tree. The strangest thing about Bobby
and Fern was that they had actually discussed marriage. Neither one was
the sort of person you could image having any life plan that would lead
to regular hours, a house, and then children who accepted them as parents.
Bobby was still on my mind when I got up to go to the office in the morning,
probably because I was annoyed in advance that he would be late and I
would have to rush to my appointment. It was a sharp but clear spring
morning, not quite to the daffodil stage. The sky was a cold blue-gray,
but the grass had greened up on the hillsides, and it seemed like you
could see each blade shining with chlorophyll. It was the sort of day
where houses look great, especially brick houses, and I had a brick house
to show, one with a big front lawn and a newly blacktopped driveway.
The surprise was that Bobby was at the office, in a jacket and a tie,
and he had the Multiple Listing book out of his desk, wide open to the
listings in the high one-hundreds. In those days, that was the back of
the book and there were some nice houses there, houses up in Rollins Hills
with five and six bedrooms and Sub-Zero refrigerators. I remember I showed
a house up there with its own little sauna/steam room. The buyers and
I stood in our shoes in the bathroom, turning the seven dials and staring
into the little wood-paneled cubbyhole like we'd never seen running water
before. Anyway, Bobby was deep in the Rollins Hills listings. As soon
as I walked in, he said, "Guess what! This guy in the bar last night,
he's moving out from the city. I'm taking him out this morning, eleven-thirty.
He wants to see seven houses today and seven tomorrow, and then he's going
to pick. You should have hung around, but I'm glad you didn't. He was
"Dark-haired guy in a gray jacket?"
"That's funny. He looked up at me when I was leaving."
"People always look at you when you're leaving the Viceroy. They're looking
at you in disbelief."
"They're looking at you in shame, Bob. Anyway, did you see Fern? She was
out there trying to catch her cat."
"She's never going to catch that cat. That cat has been trying to escape
for five years. You know, when she moved into her apartment, that cat
had the vermin cleaned out in a month. Here he is."
A Cadillac pulled into our little lot and eased between my Lincoln and
Bobby's new BMW. Baldwin Development bought a fleet of cars every two
years, always whatever some crony of Gordon's was just getting into. After
the New Year, Rollins Hills Motors had gotten the BMW franchise, and Stu
Grade had sold Gordon six BMWs over a poker game. Bobby's was red. The
local sheriff had been informed that Bobby's was the red one.
The guy who got out of the Caddy was very smooth looking--creased tan
slacks, expensive-looking white shirt, Italian-cut jacket, tasseled loafers.
He pocketed his keys and threw his sunglasses down on the seat of his
car, then glanced around for our door. When he saw me looking at him through
the plate glass, he broke into a smile. There was no one with him. House
deals without women put you out into unknown territory sometimes. That
was especially true in those days, when most buyers were families moving
around the county, to nicer houses, or out to the country from the city.
But Bobby needed something to do with his time, and I thought an iffy
client was better than any one of his usual six activities--sleeping late,
going to the Viceroy, going to the doctor, going to the dentist, doing
repairs around his own place, or calling Gordon and asking for something
to do. It was this last that had resulted in Bobby's employment at my
office. Bobby was well-meaning, and even smart, but he was a danger to
himself and others simply because he couldn't use any sort of tool or
even do anything outside of his normal routine without hurting himself
or getting sick. If it wasn't a broken toe from stumbling over a stack
of weights at the gym, then it was poison ivy all over his face from taking
Fern on a hike, or some sort of food poisoning. Gordon said to me, "That
kid could put his eye out with a hammer or break his leg with a screwdriver.
Real estate is the safest place for him." And it was. But I didn't think
he would be any match for this Marcus Burns, to whom he was now introducing
My clients were, or would soon be, waiting. My clients were careful buyers,
the Sloans. I made a living in real estate by keeping track of what a
buyer wanted and doing research--going to every open house, calling other
agents, visiting model homes, just in general mastering as many features
of as many listings as I could--but you couldn't get ahead of the Sloans.
What they wanted to know about every house they looked at, even the ones
they didn't like, defied preparation. They had been looking for four months,
not an inordinately long time, but they had seen every house on the market
in their price range and now they just waited for new listings. Usually,
at some point you gave up on people like that, because you knew they would
never buy. The one thing that made me think the Sloans would eventually
go for something was their conviction that something valuable or even
precious was out there. The more I assured them we were on top of every
available property, the more worried they got that we were missing one.
I thought the tension would eventually become too much for them to bear.
Needless to say, they were prequalified in every way. The mortgagor was
dying to lend them money.
Excerpted from Good Faith by Jane Smiley Copyrightę
2003 by Jane Smiley. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random
House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced
or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
brings her extraordinary giftscomic timing, empathy, emotional wisdom,
an ability to deliver slyly on big themes and capture the American spiritto
the seductive, wishful, wistful world of real estate, in which the sport
of choice is the mind game. Her funny and moving new novel is about what
happens when the American Dream morphs into a seven-figure American Fantasy.
is someone you like at once. He makes an honest living helping nice people
buy and sell nice houses. His not-very-amicable divorce is finally settled,
and hes ready to begin again. Its 1982. He is pretty happy,
pretty satisfied. But a different era has dawned; Joes new friend,
Marcus Burns from New York, seems to be suggesting that the old rules
are ready to be repealed, that now is the time you can get rich quick.
Really rich. And Marcus not only knows that everyone is going to get rich,
he knows how. Because Marcus just quit a job with the IRS.
But is Joe
ready for the kind of success Marcus promises he can deliver? And whats
the real scoop on Salt Key Farm? Is this really the development opportunity
of a lifetime?
theres Felicity Ornquist, the lovely, feisty, winning (and married)
daughter of Joes mentor and business partner. She has finally owned
up to her feelings for Joe: shes just been waiting for him to be
Joe asks himself, over and over, is, Does he have the gumption? Does he
have the smarts and the imagination and the staying power to pay attentionto
Marcus and to Felicityand reap the rewards?
captures the seductions and illusions that can seize America during our
periodic golden ages (every Main Street an El Dorado). To follow Joe as
he does deals and is dealt with in this newly liberated world of anything
goes is a roller-coaster ride through the fun park of the 1980s. It is
Jane Smiley in top form.
Smiley was born in L.A. in 1949 but her family only lived there for one
year before moving to St. Louis. She grew up in St. Louis and went
to Vassar college, graduating in 1971. She went to graduate school
in Iowa and taught at Iowa State University from 1981 to 1996. She won
the Pulitzer Prize
for A Thousand Acres in 1992. In 2001, she was inducted into the
American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in northern California
writing full time.