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Sunday, Apr. 13, 2003

Open quoteTwo cycles of irrational exuberance in the U.S. economy, and we still don't know what to make of it. First came the High Reagan years, with their masters of the universe, then the virtual economy, with all those make-believe billions. Were they just the latest outbursts of the usual hubris, the Yankee peddler spirit on a very big tear? Or were they a sea change, episodes that launched us into a new world?

Now two major U.S. novelists are taking on this question in two utterly different books. In Good Faith (Knopf; 417 pages), Jane Smiley has produced an irresistible novel of bad manners, a meditation on love and money that Jane Austen might have enjoyed, if she could have handled the sex. Don DeLillo, a man bidding hard, and sometimes plausibly, for the title of great American novelist, is operating at a much higher level of abstraction. In fact, he aims so high in Cosmopolis (Scribner; 209 pages) that he reaches the altitude essential for producing a cosmic bore.

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Smiley, who deals in dry comic realities, stays closer to ground. It's 1982, and the savings and loan industry has just been deregulated. Joe Stratford is a divorced, fortyish realtor in a semi-rural New Jersey township that's evolving into a yuppie suburb. He has a modest condo and a good enough real estate business. In time, he also has a head-spinning affair with a married woman.

This is all enough for some low-intensity happiness until his world is rocked by Marcus Burns, a confidence man with Jay Gatsby's tailoring but not his supernal grace. Burns is the kind of man who takes the real out of real estate. What he sells is dazzle, cutting ethical corners so carefully they become as smooth as shoreline pebbles. By charming the locals, even the suspicious ones, with dreams of designer golf courses and luxury-home developments, all financed by "visionary" debt, he brings a gold-fevered disorder to their world. Because Joe already enjoys the trust of his neighbors, Marcus draws him in as a facilitator. Complications ensue.

Smiley, the Pulitzer prizewinning author of A Thousand Acres, knows something about land and the many ways it accrues value, sometimes just in the imagination. Her book is a wise comic tale about the ways in which money makes more substantial things — land, love, friendship — dematerialize.

"All that is solid melts into air" was how Karl Marx once described the modern world. DeLillo is tackling something akin to the same evanescence in his book. Like Ulysses, Cosmopolis is a road story told in the space of a single day. Eric Packer is a 28-year-old billionaire assets manager who spends an eventful day traversing Manhattan in his chauffeured, cork-lined white stretch limousine, with all its built-in financial-data panels flashing, for the purpose of getting a haircut.

Along the gridlocked way, while ducking in and out of his car, he runs across an antiglobalism demonstration that turns into a riot, a funeral parade for a Sufi rapper, a rave party and a deranged former employee who's gunning for him. He also manages to have sex three times, though never with his strangely aloof new wife, a sumptuously wealthy minor poet who keeps crossing his path. As for the haircut, I don't want to spoil the suspense.

"I think you acquire information," his wife tells him, "and turn it into something stupendous and awful." She could be describing what DeLillo, the author of White Noise, Libra and Underworld, has done with Cosmopolis. In a book about whirlwinds of abstract data, he argues for the importance of the fleshly and palpable. Can't disagree with that, but the episodes in Packer's eventful day border on the ludicrous. Where did DeLillo lose me exactly? It may have been the scene in which Packer gets a digital rectal exam in his parked limousine while he chats with Jane Melman, his chief of finance. I like surrealism too, but sometimes I wish they would keep it in France.

DeLillo writes precision sentences. Each grim surmise and silly development comes slipcased in its own deluxe handcrafted paragraph. In one of this book's many wintry aphorisms, a woman tells Packer, "Talent is more erotic when it's wasted." If that's true, this may be the sexiest book of the year.Close quote

  • Richard Lacayo
| Source: Two of America's best novelists take on the world of financial shenanigans, and it pays off for one of them