Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Review: The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter

There's something about this book that calls out to make it into a film. I can't quite put my finger on it, not being a movie buff, but there's definitely something cinematic in its pages. If this book was more predictable, it would have the makings of a fantastic Hollywood movie. Its very lack of predictability definitely gives it great potential as an engrossing read despite the seemingly depressing premise. And Hollywood will either miss out on a thoughtful, strange, and convoluted film or they will change it beyond all recognition. The good news is that the book itself doesn't have to cater to a teenaged-boy demographic and therefore can keep all those interesting and oddball happenings and characters that populate its pages and capture readers.

Matt Prior is a former business reporter who left his fairly secure (well, as secure as newspapers get these days) job to start a website marrying the concept of finances and poetry. Not surprisingly, the venture failed, leading him back to the newspaper for a brief spell before being caught in a round of lay-offs. Now out of work and floundering in debt, he is about to lose his house; his wife is on the verge of an affair with her old high school boyfriend found again through the miracles of social networking; and his father is sunk in the quicksand of dementia.

Opening with Matt buying milk at the local 7/11 yet again so that his boys have milk for their cereal in the morning, the plotline immediately veers into the random and just bizarre enough to be believable realm. After buying the milk, Matt ends up driving two young stoners to a party and smoking marajuana for the first time in many years. As if his depression over finances isn't enough, Matt rashly decides that with marajuana as strong and wonderful as what he's just smoked, he can sell it himself to other former smokers looking for a toke of nostalgia and earn enough to keep from losing his house. In earning enough to keep his house, he won't have to share just what dire straits they are in with his wife and can therefore concentrate on ways to convince her to stay in their marriage and give him another chance. In convincing her to stay in their marriage, everything in life will get rosy again. Can you spot where in this line of reasoning he goes wrong?

The current financial crisis is a major backdrop to Matt's unconsidered scheming. It informs his weariness and beats him down at every opportunity, manifested so soul-destroyingly in a scene where Matt, desperate to stave off foreclosure, calls the latest in a string of banks to hold his mortgage, and fails to find his way through the labyrinthine automated call system to speak to an actual person. Then in a subsequent scene he reaches a live human being, is treated sympathetically, and is promptly disconnected without even the comfort of remembering which of the random extension numbers he dialed actually netted him the live bank employee. Frustration, desperation, and futility ooze from the narrative but they are couched in a black humor so as not to overwhelm the reader. Matt's bumbling, sweat-inducing foray into drug dealing is pretty funny. He's so out of place in the whole drug and party scene but then again, as a middle-aged husband, dad, son, and man, he's pretty out of place in his own life.

I really struggled to get into the book initially and I never did completely lose my judgemental feelings about Matt choosing to deal drugs but Walter did a good job making all the plot twists believable and convincing me that while I would never approve of Matt's choices, the imminent demise of your only known way of life and quite possibly your family's ultimate happiness as well can certainly make people consider things they never would have before. Not necessity but desperation making strange bedfellows and all that. Given that I am not much of a poetry reader, I know I missed many of the barely veiled homages to famous poets but those that I caught (William Carlos Williams and William Blake among them) were skillfully rendered and perfectly placed. I ended up liking the novel quite a bit more than I initially thought I would but it took a bit of perseverance in the beginning before I got into the sarcastic, satirical groove of the whole thing. An unusual, forthright look at the crisis driving so many people to the brink, read this if you want to know what happens when one man jumps off and sends his and his family's life spinning more out of control than it already is.

Make sure to check out Jess Walter's website for more information, including whether or not his tour will be coming to a city near you.

Thanks to Trish at TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. I've been loving this title, but if there are homages to poets too...I'm looking for this one!

  2. This book reminds me of when you meet a new person who comes across as snotty and sarcastic and you don't like them at first, then you get to know them and realize they are actually really funny and smart. You know what I mean? (Or am I crazy? 'Cause that is quite possible ...)

    I'm glad you were able to enjoy despite your initial reservations. Thanks for being on the tour!


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