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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.


Untold Stories – Hilary Mantel at the London Book Fair

With the critical and commercial success of her audaciously brilliant novel about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel has shown, as someone reassuringly does once in a while, that great literature can also shift serious numbers of units. It was particularly fitting, therefore, that she kicked off this year’s travel-chaos-depleted London Book Fair.

Being the author of many acclaimed novels and not one afraid to write about key historical figures – A Place of Greater Safety portrayed the French Revolution through the eyes of Robespierre, Desmoulins and Danton – Mantel is hardly a publishing gamble. Still, Wolf Hall blazes with inspiration against a landscape of often safe and/or hopeful fiction choices from British publishers at present.

The novel’s narrative structure mirrors Mantel’s description of Cromwell to the captivated book fair crowd: he was a visionary, but one who understood and was obsessive about detail and therefore could make things happen – ‘and that is very rare, I think’. Similarly Wolf Hall’s narrative faultlessly melds the events of one of English history’s most volatile and significant periods with the heartbeat of individual experience.

Mantel’s motivation, she tells us, are the untold stories. In writing Wolf Hall she explains she was less interested in the pomp and circumstance of power’s façade, than in the shadowy figures dressed in black, whispering, plotting and negotiating in dark corners. This is where real power lies and this novel is all about power.

Initially Cromwell is calculated and calm in his dealings, manoeuvring his way expertly to the heart of the court, making himself indispensable. Machiavellian at work, loving generous and loyal in his domestic life, Cromwell bewitches the reader. But something changes, as it must.

The pivotal moment comes when Cromwell is called for by the king in the middle of the night. Henry, still married to Catherine of Aragon but desperately trying to get the union annulled, has suffered a bad dream in which his dead brother, and Catherine’s former husband, Prince Arthur has appeared to him. He senses the dream is some form of reproach, and he cannot recover his peace. So he has called for Cromwell.

His loyal servant duly and very skilfully comforts the king into believing that the dream is a benign one; he grips ‘the royal person’ firmly by the arm in the king’s own bed chamber as he convinces him it is so. Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is present throughout and when the two are turfed out into the dawn-streaked corridor he remarks, ‘And that hand of yours, to take a grip on circumstance – when you took the king’s arm in your grasp, I winced myself. And Henry, he felt it. […] You are a person of great force of will.’

So the blacksmith’s son can influence the king, is called in the night as the only man who can bring him comfort? The intoxicating nature of power, the arrogance of it, has truly entered his veins and one feels that it is from this point in the narrative that his path to the executioner’s block has begun. But this time, we are on Cromwell’s side.

Great fiction is capable of illuminating hidden stories and telling us something new; Wolf Hall invites us to understand a world that, although we know it from the history books, still seems utterly remote from ours, and it succeeds completely. Its value is not via the clunking connections we can draw between our own politics and Tudor intrigue, or between today’s religious extremists and those Catholics who were prepared to burn at the stake for what they believed. On the contrary, Mantel argues that the past is interesting for its own sake. She seeks to show us that the dead were as real then as we are now, uncertain of what was to come, progressing through time blind, hopeful and anxious.

Mantel took a gamble telling Cromwell’s story through his own beady eyes, to believe she could inhabit Tudor England and King Henry’s court, imagine its historical players and richly draw their inner lives on the page. But like her protagonist-hero her risk is a calculated one due to the powerful intellect that lies behind it, the confidence she must have as a writer. Perhaps she can also inspire writers and publishers to take bigger gambles on ambitious literary fiction.