Jess Walter, The Financial Lives of the Poets (2009)

It seemed like a good idea at the time to Matt Prior: to leave his job as a financial journalist and set up a website focused on providing financial writing of a higher literary quality  than usual – financial advice in the form of poetry, anyone? The site proved unpopular, and Matt is now just a few days away from losing the home he shares with his wife Lisa, sons Frankiin and Teddy, and his ailing father Jerry – not that he’s told any of them. What’s more, Matt thinks Lisa has reconnected with her ex-boyfriend online. It’s a pretty dire situation, then; but a chance encounter with some youths at a 7/11 leads Matt to think of a way out of his problems – dealing in dope. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time…

The Financial Lives of the Poets is, above all, a very funny book. Much of the humour comes from Matt’s narrative voice, which is dense with observation. For example:

The advice you get when your mortgage is in danger is to “contact the lender.” The last time I contacted my lender, some twenty-five-year-old kid answered the phone and talked me into forbearance, this six-month amnesty of procrastination. I should have known it was a bad move when I contacted my lender the next time and found out the kid had been laid off, that our mortgage had been bundled and sold with a stack of similarly red paper to a second company, and that the second company had been absorbed by a third company. Now I have no idea how to “contact my lender.” I seem to spend hours in automated phone dungeons (“For English, press one”) desperately looking for a single human voice to gently tell me I’m dead. (29)

Walter achieves a nice balancing act with Matt’s voice and character, I think: there are wisecracks, but there’s also enough desperation in Matt’s narration to keep him grounded firmly in the messy business of the story, rather than floating freely above it where a quip and a raised eyebrow could save the day.

Matt is (appropriately, I’d say) simultaneously sympathetic and unlikeable. There’s something almost endearing about the way that his attempts to dig himself out of a hole end up pushing him further into one; but we can see that he has the best intentions at heart – except that, sometimes, he doesn’t. He’s under pressure from about five or six different angles and, though his responses aren’t always commendable, they ring true emotionally. There’s also an undercurrent of poignancy when Matt confronts issues like his father’s dementia, which acts as a counterpoint to the humour.

The Financial Lives of the Poets feels very much like a novel that belongs to today: it’s a story that grows out of the current economic climate, and examines the lengths to which someone might go to deal with a bad situation – and there are plenty of laughs along the way. Warmly recommended.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of The Financial Lives of the Poets: Just William’s LuckBookmunch; Raging Bibliomania.
Jess Walter talks about the book
Jess Walter’s website

2 Comments

  1. Completely agree with your point about the “desperation” grounding the comedy here. I mentioned something similar in my own review a while back – that the books we think of as most “modern” often have this blend of self-deprecating humour and cynical ennui.

  2. David Hebblethwaite

    19th September 2010 at 10:33 pm

    That’s an interesting thought. Would you give some examples of what you mean?

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