Good Faith (Knopf), reading at Annie Bloom Books, 7834 SW Capitol Hwy, Thursday, 7:30 pm
It's 1982 in Jane Smiley's newest book, Good Faith and Joe Stratford is 40 and divorced, and a successful real estate agent in a small town on the East Coast. He's polite, kind, and attractive. He helps his parents around their house, keeps his condo neat, only drinks occasionally, and doesn't do drugs.

And yet, there's just something wrong about the guy, which is strange because it's Marcus Burns, the high-falutin' wheeler-dealer who moves into town from New York, who we're supposed to be wary of. And we are, but not in quite the same way. Burns has a smoothness about him, a car salesman-esque urgent lucidity that makes his ideas about real estate development seem too good to be true. Nevertheless, Joe closes his business up to go into cahoots with this brash newcomer.

Perhaps it is Joe's eagerness to buy into Burns' smarm that makes him kind of unlikable. Where Burns is sketchy, but at least energetic and charming, Joe seems rather spineless. He comes across as dull and slow with his charismatic (married) girlfriend; he lets Marcus Burns order him around; when he reminisces about his ex-wife he says, "I didn't miss the food or even the sex and I didn't miss the house... I missed the attention I had paid her, the time and effort that took, and the pleasant and happy feeling I used to have of being sure that everything with her was okay for the time being."

Yipes, what a wimp. Simply put, Joe is a pleaser who rides the ambition of others. No matter how kind he is, we never buy him as a personality worthy of profiting off of the American Dream. And when Marcus Burns and the whole deal blows up in his face, he is the only one surprised.

Good Faith is kind of a downer; 400 pages about a man who we know from the start will not come out on top. But the chameleon-like Smiley could write about her ingrown hairs and it would be compelling. Here, she has spun the epic tale of a man neither good nor bad, but mediocre, and his fall in the face of greed. It's hard to relate to him because we want to think we can't. JUSTIN WESCOAT SANDERS