He’s a week away from losing his house to a foreclosure. He has no job. (His first great idea was to quit in order to start his own business — news about Wall Street in verse, poetfolio.com, are you kidding me? — and when that didn’t pan out, big surprise, he scuttled back to his job in journalism, which also didn’t keep him afloat for long, second big surprise.) His wife is cheating on him with someone she’s known since childhood. (Someone employed.) His kids won’t be able to stay in private school. His dad has Alzheimer’s. Everything is in free fall, and Matt can’t hope to keep up appearances for more than a few days longer — not that the appearances are even that good.
So when Matt goes out for milk to the 7-11 one night (nine dollars a gallon, sheesh!), it seems less like desperation and more like beautiful logic to get caught in the snare of the guys smoking pot in the parking lot. Just one hit can’t hurt, right? But the pot is great, it’s so different from the ragweed Matt used to smoke with his buddies, and he just knows that the same nostalgia would hit his own middle-aged friends and colleagues if he gave them a chance. And then the plan forms: if he just does everything right, he can get it all back, the house payments, the private schools, the beautiful wife…
I’ve seen Jess Walter’s most recent novel, Beautiful Ruins, making the rounds recently. The Financial Lives of the Poets could use that as a subtitle, since its business is to show both the dream and the destruction of ordinary American middle-class consumer society. Satire is a tricky business, I find, since humor is so individual. But this book walks a line between laughter and melancholy, light verse and tears. From the beginning, you can see Matt making his calculations, over and over: where did it go wrong? How was I wrong to want these good things for my family? Where did I start the downhill slide? What do I do now? There must be some way to rescue this. And that belief — that somehow there must always be a second chance in America — is part of the beauty as well as the ruin.
This book is genuinely funny. There are whole chapters of slapstick, and plenty of Matt’s internal musings. Here, Matt has gone to do some surveillance on his wife’s suspected lover, Chuck the Lumberman:
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 a 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.
It can sometimes seem as if this self-mocking, top-speed narration isn’t going to take a break, and indeed the jam-packed events of the book take place over only a couple of days — not enough time for much introspection.
But Walter has built his tools of social criticism into the structure of the book. Matt’s earnest belief that he can get back what he’s lost merely by beginning the cycle all over again feels true even if utterly lost. Matt’s father, spinning in dementia, losing his past for good, is the real symbol for Matt’s own life. The question is how to accept the new normal, so close to the edge — and this, as Walter has observed, is the question for millions of Americans. The great fear is no longer 9/11, but what’s waiting at the 7-11, at nine dollars a gallon, or ten dollars an hour. Walter makes us laugh, but he makes us see, too, and that’s the job of a poet, financial or otherwise.