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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Financial Lives of the Poets: A Delightful Foray Into Despair

This is going to take some linguistic acrobatics. I'm going to spend the next 500 or so words trying to convince you that a story about bad choices, despair, near-financial ruin, and a failing marriage is one of the funniest, most charming, and downright best books you'll read in a long, long time. 

Jess Walter's The Financial Lives of the Poets is fantastic — an authentic and timely story, featuring cameos from the mortgage crisis, the slow death of newspapers, and the increasingly intense culture wars. But Walter manages to keep it light, and it's just a whole lot of fun!  

The story goes like this: Middle-aged Matt Prior's comfortable upper-middle-class suburban life has imploded, and now he's like a guy in one of those air-blown-money-grab phone booths, trying to grasp at the tatters of his sanity. Two years ago, Matt had quit his secure job as a financial journalist to start a Web site in which financial advice is doled out in poetry form (hence, the novel is peppered with snippets of free verse). At the last minute, he got cold feet, went back to his newspaper, but was laid off four months later. Now, Matt is a few days from losing his house. And his wife, apparently fed up with how things have gone down lately, is ramping up a Facebook flirtation with an old boyfriend.

But this all happened "off page." The novel actually begins in medias res with unemployed, increasingly desperate Matt (who I kept envisioning looking exactly like Walter's photo [at left] on the back flap) going out late at night to buy milk at a 7-Eleven. Offered a joint by a stoned teenager in the parking lot, Matt thinks "what the hell?" and spends the rest of the night out partying.

Over the next few days, Matt agonizes over whether to confront his wife about her impending infidelity and attempts to navigate the maze of automated answering options to beg his mortgage holder for an extension. Finally, believing himself out of sensible options, he decides that the only way to make enough money to solve his problems is to leverage his new pot-smoking buds to help him make a massive marijuana purchase, which he'll then sell to middle-aged folk like himself who are nostalgic for happier times.

This is the first of many terrible decisions that speeds Matt's demise. You know how when you spend way more than you wanted to on, say, a suit, and so then it's not hard to convince yourself that "hey, since I'm already way over budget, what's another $100?" So you pick up the silk tie, too. On a much grander scale, this is exactly what Matt does — bad decisions beget bad decisions, each time eroding any notion of possible consequences. Still, amazingly, by the end of the novel, you just feel terrible for him! 

The best part of this book is the writing. It's...just...fantastic.** The NY Times once called Walter "a ridiculously talented writer," and frankly there's no better way to put it than that. Like Beat the Reaper, this was an under-the-radar hit in 2009, and landed on many Best Of 2009 lists, including Time's, which is very, very well-deserved. Do yourself a favor — read this! 

**If you're interested, here is my favorite passage from the book. The setup: Matt has gone to the home improvement store where his wife's Facebook flirt works to do some anonymous reconnaissance. He's pretending to be building a tree fort for his two sons: "He stops in the aisle of how-to books and clicks his tongue as he runs his hand across the spines of books that show how to do simple electrical work and how to repair and carburetor and how to fix a clogged sink and how to build a porch and how to stain your fence and, finally, how to build a tree fort. This long bookshelf seems taken directly from my insecurities — an entire library of things I cannot do. In the next aisle of this hell-library would be books about how to manage your billions and what to do with your foot-long penis."

15 comments:

  1. Great review - love your favourite passage, that's genius at work there! I'm reading Walter's The Zero at the moment and loving it (9/11 book - hello, thesis!) so would love to pick this one up when I get a chance!

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  2. @Kath - How do you like The Zero? I know it was a National Book Award finalist, but I've seen mixed reviews...The NY Times review, though, was decidedly positive!

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  3. I haven't seen too many reviews of this one, but I've been very interested in the book. Sounds great! Very good review about such a drab-sounding novel (on first introduction only, of course)!

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  4. @Andi - Thanks! Yeah, you're right about the dearth of reviews - but 99 percent of the ones that do exist are very, very positive!

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  5. I am convinced! You wrote a great review; I respect your opinion so off I go to find the book. Keep the great reviews coming!

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  6. @SariJ - Thanks for the kind words. I hope you enjoy it - I'm pretty sure you will!

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  7. Sounds great to me! I've decided I need to work in a few funny books into my TBR juggling act so this one's going on my wish list.

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  8. @fictionfanatic - Good idea! Everyone needs a few funny books in their roster, and you could do much worse than this one. :)

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  9. Hi Greg, Sorry didn't see your question about Zero til now! Well I guess now you know having read my review ;) Hope you enjoy it as much as I did, be keen to know what you think when you've read it!

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  10. I had the hardest time trying to explain to people why they should read this. First the title is a bit offputting. Then you tell them what it's about and they look at you like you're nuts when you say that it's also funny. But it really is.

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  11. @Lisa - Agreed on the title, but if the worst thing about a book is its title, no big deal, I say. Good to hear from someone else who enjoyed this book - thanks for the comment!

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  12. I love this! Bravo for a well written, witty review!

    Thanks for linking.
    -CYM

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  13. great review...definitely makes me want to check it out!

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  14. Every time I'm in a bookstore and this one's on the shelf, I'm drawn to it, but never actually buy it.

    Maybe I should, now...

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  15. According to Kindle, I'm 68% through this novel and trying to read as slowly as I can, as I'm dreading having to leave Matt's disintegrating universe. Jess Walter's writing is laugh-out-loud funny, and his hapless yet sympathetic protagonist reminds me of David Gates' Peter Jernigan (though perhaps less of a cad). Thanks for the recommendation -- I look forward to reading more of Jess Walter's work!

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