THE FINANCIAL LIVES OF THE POETS by Jess Walter

Book Quote:

“But it’s all. . .broke. We’re broke, Lisa and me-something important cracked in us. And I have no idea how to fix it, any more than I know how to keep from losing our house, or for that matter, how to build a tree fort.”

Book Review:

Review by Danielle Bullen and Judi Clark (DEC 30, 2009)

In The Financial Lives of the Poets, author Jess Walter has created an everyman character with a twist. Forty-six year old newspaper reporter Matt Prior has been laid off from his job. With his severance package running out, panic has set in. Questionable monetary choices, including most notably, Matt’s unsuccessful launch of the website poetfolio.com, which was to give financial advice in verse, but instead ate up their savings before it launched, and his wife Lisa’s brief e-Bay buying spree and a bit of financial juggling with their mortgage, have left the Priors in a home worth less then what they owe on it; a very topical situation.

Added to the mix are their two boys, whom they send to a parochial school (even though they aren’t Catholics) and Matt’s father, who suffers from dementia and lives with them because he gave all his money away to Charity, an ironically named stripper.

Matt hides the notice that their house will be foreclosed in a week, unless he comes up with the $31,000 balloon payment. He is protecting his wife and the bit of his marriage that he thinks he can salvage… “every night now Lisa spends two hours on our home computer, managing her Facebook page and her Linked-In page and her MySpace page, responding to ass-sniffing inquiries from old friends on Classmastes.com and Google-imaging, people she used to know…I worry that what she’s really looking for is not the people that she once knew, but the her she once was…” Of course, what Matt is most worried about is the extensive chats she is having with her high school boyfriend, Chuck. Especially when they decide to get off the computers and text message — in bed.

One such incident sends him out late night to buy milk at the local 7/11, and in beautifully rendered introspective first person passages, Matt describes how he ends up giving two stoned kids a ride to a party and getting stoned out of his mind for the first time in fifteen years and in this altered state he describes just how they got to the financial state that he is in and capping off the evening with the best burrito of his life before returning home four hours later with milk for the kids cereal. Enough to make you want to hang out at a 7/11 to check out the designer pot the kids are smoking these days.

The next day, still a little stoned, he deals with the usual domestic chores and visits Richard, their financial advisor (“the meeting is as predictable as coffin shopping”) to close out his last retirement fund hoping that there is enough to make the mortgage payment, and save the house, again. But his financial situation is too far gone, “You have fiscal Ebola, Matt. You are bleeding out through your nose and your mouth and your eye sockets, from your financial asshole.” Richard then slides the check across to him and after penalties, taxes, and commissions, it is a little over $9,000 dollars. Not nearly enough.

“Wait.” I look down at the check again as Richard stands. “You took a commission? Do travel agents take commissions on flights that go down?”

Desperate for the cash in a bleak job market and with only six days left, Matt turns to an unlikely solution. He cashes his paltry retirement check and buys $9000 worth of weed, figuring he can sell it to come up with the mortgage payment.

He sells some to a few of his former co-workers, but before he can unload any more, his dealers approach him with an interesting proposition. They offer to sell him their entire growing operation for $4 million dollars. They claim to take in a million a year, so theoretically he could recoup his investment in four years.

Although he in no way has that kind of money, Matt thinks briefly about finding some investors to come up with the capital. Before he can move forward, he’s approached about another, more outlandish proposition.

Matt Prior is an interesting protagonist. He disguises his self-pity through humor, much to the reader’s delight. Through him Walter’s gets to expound on the right and wrong of our everyday post 9-11 (or 7-11, as is the running joke in the novel) life. Matt is neither delusional or unreliable in his narration. He honestly describes his predicament, as in this example: “I’d love to go back to a 2004 cocktail party and beat those sure-sounding real estate idiot optimists to death with a For Sale sign. I’d take a good whack at myself too, because while I suspect that housing prices will bounce back (five years? ten?) I’m also sure of this: I’ll never fall in love again. I’ve lot my innocence. And my disappointment is not that my own home has lost half its value. What disappoints me is me –that I fell for their propaganda when I knew better, that I actually allowed myself to believe that a person could own a piece of the world when the truth is that anything you try to own ends up owning you. We’re all just renting.” And no matter our own situation, we know what he’s saying. We know that most any of us could end up being in Matt’s situation.

Lest we forget, Matt is a poet at heart… and there is a lot of readable poetry in this book, mostly at the start of chapters. Matt’s intention with poetfolio.com was to use poetry and literary writing on the one subject that is part of our everyday life… financials; make poetry meaningful to our lives, not just an esoteric art form. The author achieves this goal beautifully, I think. Here’s a couple from early in the book and they only get better as we read on:

“Hey, the guy’s coming to blow the sprinklers,”
Lisa says as she blows through the kitchen,
in billowing skirt, and I can barely keep
my head up — something I forgot to do?

or

“My wife types her life, key-by-key
site-by-site, primarily at night,
on the home PC where I try to find
work while she’s drowsing, instead
find the history of her browsing,
surfing her lost past for evidence
that she wasn’t always this sad—”

That’s from Matt’s creative right brain. His left brain likes to endlessly list things. “Dad’s and Charity’s relationship was one of those classic May-December romances, a by-the-numbers affair, those numbers being (1) grind, (2) drunken proposal, (3) taking stripper home, (4) identity theft and (5) disappearance of stripper.” His satire has heart and half the time you don’t know if you should laugh or cry.

Walter’s perfectly captures the tender yet frustrating relationship between senile parents and their adult children. The scenes between Matt and his father are some of the most touching and true-to life in the book. Profundity shines through the satire, like when Matt realizes “Mothers have a million things to teach you. But fathers? We only have two lessons, but those two things are everything you need to know: (1) What to do and (2) What not to do.” Despite his questionable choices, Matt’s obvious love for Lisa, his boys, and his dad, and his desire to give them a better life, motivates him.

Walter has taken a subject that hits close to home for many Americans and portrays it with a deft comic touch. The Financial Lives of the Poets holds readers’ attentions from the first page with a fast-moving plot. At times, Matt’s actions strain credibility but he’s such a likable protagonist that readers will easily forgive these far-fetched schemes and settle down for the ride. Besides,  who knows what you would do if you found yourself at “…another 7/11. And here I am, just like my mother feared, stoned off my nut, unemployed, a week from losing my house and maybe my wife and kids…”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 146 readers
PUBLISHER: Harper; First Printing edition (September 22, 2009)
REVIEWER: Danielle Bullen and Judi Clark
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Jess Walter
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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December 30, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Contemporary, Drift-of-Life, Humorous, Literary, Satire, United States, y Award Winning Author

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