Just finished Jane Smiley's Moo (1995) and loved it. The characters are plentiful and distinct. That she never loses one and keeps all the reins straight through 414 pages of tightly packed prose amazes me. She could drive a twelve-horse hitch through the eye of a needle! Despite having published this book almost two decades ago, she keeps her story fresh, and the fiscal debacle that drives the plot seems particularly timely now.
As a faculty member at a midwestern university, Smiley certainly wrote about what she knew. The whole campus population is available to her and she works them hard. Faculty, students, families, towns people and the animals in the university programs, a hog named Earl Butts to a model of bad equine conformation, they are real. And her range of information has a power all its own--from animal husbandry and horticulture to gold mines in Costa Rica, university administration, economics, religion, farm machines and the hideous bureauracies of academia, all present. She has no angels, just some characters less ego-tainted than others, but they too, are fully present. Read it!