Smiley nails the Greed Decade with her trademark precision and philosophical bite.
In 1982, narrator Joe Stratford is a divorced 40-year-old realtor in a part of New Jersey just beginning the transition from provincial backwater to upscale suburb. He’s a disappointment to his religious parents but “the elected son” of slightly shady developer Gordon Baldwin, whose married daughter Felicity forthrightly entices Joe into a lighthearted affair that turns serious. Into this comfortable existence blows Marcus Burns, an IRS agent turned “investment counselor” who solves Gordon’s tax problems with a phone call and immediately starts spinning grandiose plans to make big bucks developing the 580-acre estate of a wealthy elderly couple. “This is the eighties,” Marcus tells a skeptical Joe. “Experience doesn’t count anymore.” Marcus’s schemes get ever bigger, financed without a murmur by Portsmouth Savings, whose aggressive new president aims to swell its revenues by taking advantage of S&L deregulation, and Marcus’s sister Jane arrives to lure more capital with her knowledge of “all the new investment instruments.” It’s utterly clear that Marcus is a con man, but Smiley (Horse Heaven, 2000, etc.) expertly conveys his appeal to people quietly bored with their constricted lives. “When someone like Marcus Burns comes around, it makes you realize how local you are,” remarks Gordon’s ne’er-do-well younger son, one of the many characters drawn with Smiley’s customary incisiveness. Marcus is the most compelling, despicable yet oddly vulnerable, tapping spookily into other people’s personal longings. As Joe is drawn into his scams, the author unsparingly but with considerable empathy depicts the complicity of a decent guy doing questionable things that give him an alluring sense of freedom and power. Was Marcus manipulating Joe all along? Or did he mean it when he said, “you’re about the only friend I’ve ever had” and just couldn’t help himself? Joe has to live with the fact that he’ll never know, just as he has to live with the consequences of his actions in a novel that, like A Thousand Acres (1991), acknowledges both the seductiveness of excess and the necessity of limits.
Blunt and bold: the work of one of America’s best writers.