The Financial Lives of the Poets

financial lives of the poetsMatt Prior is going out for milk at two a.m., and he’s losing everything.

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,, 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.

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13 Responses to The Financial Lives of the Poets

  1. Matt Prior, huh? Does he hang out with his buddies John Swift and Al Pope?

    • Jenny says:

      I should have mentioned. And Al Pope makes a cameo appearance, along with Wally Stevens and Libby Bishop and Tom Eliot and all kinds of other guys (at least in a literary sense.)

  2. Great review :) I’ve had “Beautiful Ruins” on my TBR pile for a while and of course I’ll read that one first before I get more books from the author. But if I like it, the writing style and all, this one is definitely on my list.
    You’re so right about the humor. Sometimes it doesn’t quite translate on the page. I’ve heard both good and bad about “Skios” by Michael Frayn, which is also rather light-weight. Although I haven’t read that one either ;) I have a tendency to go for darker subjects in literature. However, it might be time to break that cycle.

    Cheers, Kat :)

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t read much humor either (and you would be brave to read it from another culture — that is often the most difficult of all!) but this was really enjoyable. Try Beautiful Ruins and see how you like it!

  3. I think I’ll probably start with Beautiful Ruins rather than this one, and decide from there whether Walter is a good author for me. I have so little patience for middle-class white men feeling unhappy with their lots, and I want to give Jess Walter the best chance I can. Even if this one is funny, I just think I’ll have a better shot at liking Beautiful Ruins.

    • Jenny says:

      I really get what you mean and sympathize! This book hit the right spot for me with that, though, because he both satirizes that notion pretty hard and also gets the reality of it (I mean, it is actually true that some of middle-class America has had a pretty tough financial shake in the past few years, without always wanting to face up to that.) There’s a scene that sticks with me where the main character suspects that his wife and her friend are talking about his wife’s affair, and he knows he’s probably being unfair to his wife and kind of a dick, but he really does suspect her and is in pain about that, and you see him as simultaneously sympathetic and a dick during the entire scene. It’s incredibly well done. I’ll be reading more of this guy. Also! This book has plot! :)

  4. Laura says:

    I’ve read almost all of Walter’s works–Citizen Vince (a mystery book club favorite) and The Zero are my favorites. He is not at all a white man unhappy with his lot, nor are all his characters caught up in that. Each of his works is unique. Quality writing all around.

    • Jenny says:

      I would say part of the point of this book is white-man-unhappy-with-his-lot, but that it transcends that as well. It moved between the satire and the melancholy really beautifully, and not many books do that successfully. Nice to have a hometown boy writing so well!

  5. Stefanie says:

    I wondered about this book when it first came out but didn’t hear much about it and then it dropped off my radar. But it sounds like fun! This time it is going on my TBR list.

  6. litlove says:

    I loved Beautiful Ruins so I’m very glad to know this earlier work has merit too. I’d like to get around to reading it. I found him to be a clever writer and one who certainly made me laugh (and not too much at anyone’s expense).

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