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Good faith amid bad judgments

Shaped by her rage over failed promises of the '80s, Jane Smiley's 12th novel maps the emotional landscape of financial crisis.

June 17, 2003|Shawn Hubler | Times Staff Writer

CARMEL VALLEY — Though Jane Smiley's bestselling new novel is set in the Reagan era, it couldn't be more timely, with its tale of boomtime temptation and the suckering of Middle Americans. Its title is punchy. Its characters are tenderly written. Its sex scenes are hotter than you'd expect from a 53-year-old former Iowa English professor.

Still, it almost hurts to read "Good Faith" (Knopf) here in Northern California, where Smiley lives now and where the wounds are still fresh from the last bout of free-market mania and depression. As it turns out, this wasn't the terrain she'd intended for her 12th novel.

"I was going to write a book about sex and Hollywood," the author said, curling up on a couch in her Monterey County ranch house. "But when I was on the book tour for 'Horse Heaven,' every hotel I would check into, there would be a local magazine that said, 'Sex in Cincinnati!' Or 'Sex in Wichita!' And I thought, 'You know, I'm really behind the tip of the wave on this sex thing.' "

Which, she says, is how she ended up with the queasier, closer-to-home hook -- irrational exuberance.

Jane Smiley has been compared to Balzac and lauded as perhaps the closest thing her generation has produced to a specialist in big-picture social novels. Her work has spanned every genre, from "Moo," a comedy starring a pig on a college campus, to "A Thousand Acres," which won the Pulitzer Prize for its Midwestern retelling of the tragic "King Lear."

She has written a dense Norse epic ("The Greenlanders"), domestic novellas ("The Age of Grief") and magical realism ("Horse Heaven," in which several of the most memorable characters are equine). She has received kudos for her recent biography of Charles Dickens. She has been deluged with hate mail for an essay in Harper's dissing Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

Then there are the magazine and newspaper pieces, on everything from her horse habit (she has 12) to her political viewpoints. Her proud first-person account of her family life -- three marriages, three children and three breakups over three decades -- generated days' worth of letters to the editor after the New York Times ran it under the headline, "There They Go, Bad-Mouthing Divorce Again."

But in person, at least on this midweek morning, she's first and foremost a woman making the best of a bad cold. "Would you like some tea?" Smiley asks, padding into her kitchen and apologizing for a remodeling that has been in progress now for three years.

Her blouse is baggy, her face delicate behind her wire-rimmed glasses. She is 6-feet-2, but she looks frail today, and her lips are pale with the bug she says her middle child brought home. Dogs barge in and out -- two little Jack Russell terriers and a Great Dane. Men in work boots wander around -- her boyfriend, Jack Canning, who is remodeling her house, and her third ex-husband, Steve Mortensen, who is building her a new deck.

Mortensen calls hello from his truck and points out the best spot for parking. Later, Canning pops in.

"Honey? Jack?" she calls as he walks past. "Come here a minute, dear. The interviewer would like you to stand up and turn around and show her who you are and what you look like."

Laughing, the gray-haired builder, a Philadelphia transplant, jams his hands into his back pockets and pirouettes for her.

"Doesn't he look good?" she asks. "He's notorious in L.A. for being that strange, good-looking guy Jane Smiley is always with."

Replies Canning: "Good thing I shaved."

Both he and Mortensen reside nearby; Smiley lives alone with her children, who are gone at the moment. The older two daughters, by her second marriage, are in college, and it's a school day for her and Mortensen's 10-year-old son. Her 20-year-old is at UC Santa Cruz, and her 24-year-old is at the University of Iowa law school, where her instructors, Smiley said, include Smiley's first husband.

"Yeah, we're very California," the author says, sounding simultaneously self-deprecating and boastful and, despite seven years here, utterly un-Californian. But it has been a long way from the prairie to this posh horse country where, in the 1960s, Bob Dylan used to visit Joan Baez. Though Smiley was born in Los Angeles, she was an infant when her family moved to St. Louis. Her parents divorced when she was a small child. Her mother, a journalist, raised her with the help of an extended family of chronic storytellers, she has said. "The first novel I ever knew was our family," she wrote in a 1996 essay.

Then came stardom

She was still an undergraduate at Vassar in 1970 when she married for the first time and moved to Iowa for her husband's schooling. The marriage lasted five years; her second marriage lasted eight years; her stint in Iowa stretched for two decades. Then came "A Thousand Acres" and literary stardom, and book contracts that made it clear she would no longer have to teach.

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