The Financial Lives of the Poets – a review

The Financial Lives of the Poetby Jess Walter  (Penguin, 2010)

The current plight of America’s middle classes, a traditionally upwardly mobile and prosperous demographic who now find themselves caught in a mire of repossessions and debt, is not inherently funny. Though try telling that to Jess Walter, whose entertaining fifth novel turns its attentions to the recession-hit American middle.

His self-deprecating, debt-riddled protagonist, Matthew Prior (a name he shares with the seventeenth-century poet of Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets) is in trouble precisely because he has done that previously acceptable American thing: followed his dream. Unfortunately for him, his increasingly remote wife Lisa, two children and senile father, that dream involved giving up his job as a business journalist to start – a financial news site delivering the latest updates in verse.

In case we were ever in any doubt as to the merits of this plan, each chapter starts with and contains examples of his banal lines: ‘Buffeted by fuel costs soaring / and with labor costs surging / Delta and Northwest are exploring / the possibility of merging.’

With six sleep-deprived days to save his house from repossession, all logical solutions seem surreally unfeasible to Matt: ‘This is my life now: set as far back as it will go’. And on a late-night trip to 7/11 he finds himself smoking powerful weed with some kids in his dad-mobile, the Nissan Maxima (which he still owes months of repayments on), and concocting a fuddled and desperate plan to start selling the stuff to his equally disappointed-in-life, but at least employed, friends and enemies. As his paranoid dealer and would-be lawyer Dave explains, Matt has the potential to tap into ‘a demographic we weren’t reaching’.

Illegality aside, it’s not such a terrible business plan, but its implications are worrying – the quality of life Prior has come to expect can no longer be sustained by hardworking all-American values. Something’s got to give. And quite naturally, when a clueless forty-six-year-old man (who thought was a good idea) tries to make a quick buck on skunk, something does.

Prior is an everyman – kind, normal, misguided – who responds to his difficulties with a sort of crazed somnambulant optimism that makes him consistently likeable. Diverting sub-plots come in the form of his efforts to stop Lisa’s virtual affair with dull but solvent lumber merchant, Chuck, from getting too real; and his senile father’s repetitive thought patterns: “‘You know what I miss?” […] I go with the odds: “Chipped beef?” “Rockford Files,” Dad says.’

The figure of Prior’s dementia-suffering Dad, whilst providing many comic interludes, also serves to highlight the painful reality his son can no longer avoid. Dad worked hard all his life to support his family in a two-bit job at Sears, and now he can’t remember how he lost all his money – for your interest, a stripper called Charity stole his savings and maxed out all his credit options. So, whilst he leers over the twenty-four-hour newsgirls – ‘“God, I wouldn’t mind planting my carrot in that garden”’ – his son is left reflecting on the cruelty of fate:

Should anyone doubt that our miserable time here on Earth is just a sad existential joke […] my father (who is obsessed with sex, like a lot of dementia sufferers) […] recently had ten days of crazy sex with a twenty-two-year-old stripper […] and the poor son-of-a-bitch doesn’t remember a thing about it.

The novel is concerned with loss, not just of the fiscal kind, but by the end, its darker aspects seem to have been neatly tidied away. Not that the finale is unrealistic, more that it feels rushed and, after everything, doesn’t seem all that painful. But the novel is both entertaining and at times darkly amusing as it skilfully dances between class satire, slapstick comedy and a sort of late-developer bildungsroman.

As Johnson said, ‘Life is a pill which none of us can bear to swallow without gilding’. Walter’s funny and bittersweet tale of a family caught up in its own and a nation’s folly is a reminder that many will now have to face an unsweetened reality.


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