Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Book Review: The Financial Lives of the Poets, by Jess Walter

The Financial Lives of the Poets, by Jess Walter
289 pgs.
Challenges: 2010 Support Your Library Challenge

It is such a nice feeling when your first book of the year is a major winner - and when you know that it has earned a place on your Best of the Year list.

Such is the case with The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter. And this book is such a perfect one to start this decade off with because it is so timely and hits all the right notes in terms of this crappy economy that we have going on these days. It is the definitive story of the decade we just said goodbye to and, it seems, of the one we just welcomed.

Simply put, this book is a masterpiece in every sense. I absolutely loved it - so much so that I stayed up until 1 a.m. last night because I had to find out what happened to Matt Prior.

You see, Matt's having a hell of a week. He's deep in debt, thanks to a failed entrepreneurial venture (, a financial website written in verse - hence, the book's title) that he started several years ago when he left his job as a newspaper business reporter. When he returns to the paper, he falls victim to the latest round of layoffs that are rampant in today's newsrooms. His wife Lisa had a fling with eBay by buying thousands of dollars of "collectibles" that would surely increase in value after only a few years and is now having an online fling with Facebook and a former (or current - Matt's not quite sure) boyfriend.

Because of his job loss, Matt's the primary caretaker for his father, who is in the throes of dementia, forever channel-surfing for the latest episode of The Rockford Files. And because of the job loss and failed business ventures, his dream house is headed for foreclosure in six days, despite Matt's valient attempts to "contact his lender" through a maze of voice mail hell.

Matt is drowning in all this when he ventures out for milk late at night ... and through a casual conversation at 7-11, begins to formulate a plan to save his house and all that it represents.

"I wonder if a house has ever represented as much as it does now, for people like Lisa and me. It has been the full measure and symbol of our wealth and security over the last few years; every cent we threw into it and every cent we took out, seemed so smart, like such a good bet. Every time we got ahead, we borrowed against the thing to remodel, and every time we remodeled the thing we congratulated ourselves on our wisdom, and every time we saw a house go up for sale on our block (They're asking three-eighty-five and it's half the size!) we became like derivative-crazed brokers; we stopped thinking of the value of our home as a place of shelter and occupancy and family - or even as the aesthetic triumph witnessed from our alley - but as kind of a faith equation. theoretical construct. mechanism of wealth-generation, salvation function on a calculator, its value no longer what its worth but some compounded value that might exist given the upward tick of the market, because this was the only direction housing markets could ever go: up." (pg. 97-98)

I think one of the hallmarks of a good writer is one who can make you love and hate a character within the same sentence. And Jess Walter - who is a very, very, very good writer - succeeds at this with his main character of Matt. You can be exasperated with him but laughing at his wisecracks on one page and weeping for him on the next.

Because, you see, we are all Matt Prior. We've seen our jobs and 401ks disappear; we've seen our housing values diminish and our American dreams dissolve. Or if we're among the lucky ones and that hasn't happened to us, we sure know someone who is living a life pretty close to Matt's. And we know that we're just one mistake - or one corporate bottom-line fat cat of a CEO with a golden parachute - away from being him. There for but the grace of God ....

"I'm also sure of this: I'll never fall in love again. I've lost my innocence. And my disappointment is not that my own home has lost half its value. What disappoints me is me - that I fell for their propaganda when I knew better, that I actually allowed myself to believe that a person could own a piece of the world when the truth is that anything you try to own ends up owning you.

We're all just renting." (pg. 98)

We're all just renting. Indeed, we are. We've all borrowed to the max; we're all here on borrowed time and someone's else dime.

As much as everything is working against Matt Prior, everything is working for Jess Walter in The Financial Lives of the Poets. In this novel (his fifth), the characters are incredibly well-drawn, the dialogue is amazingly accurate (and funny as hell), and the plot and pacing are perfect. The only cautionary note I would offer is that if you're offended by the use of the f-word on more than one occasion (many more than one occasions), then this might not be the book for you. It is not a book for the pure or politically correct.

(It's also advisable not to read this in the presence of, say, your 8-year old kids. Which I did the other night, when Betty and Boo and I were doing our regular routine of reading our own books in the guest room bed. Before long, curious heads were peering over my shoulder, gasping that "there is a really bad word in your book, Mommy!" and me expressing mock horror at such language.)

I owe a huge thank you to several book bloggers who have already reviewed this and as such, put this on my radar screen when I saw it on the New Books shelf at the library. I'll admit that I probably would not have picked it up otherwise. The cover, as Mad Men-esque as it is with the dude falling in mid-air, does this book no favors.

You'll be doing yourself a favor, believe me, by investing the time in reading The Financial Lives of the Poets.

Here's Jess Walter's website ... and here's what other bloggers said:

Book Nook Club

Books and Movies
I'm Booking It


Care said...

Great! This is already on my radar (and I think - better go check - on my goodreads tbr) but I'm moving it up. Just the thought of someone having a financial website in verse... REALLY?! and may you have a prosperous 2010.

southernmatrix said...

I just finished this book and really loved it! Funny, funny, and past funny....a great read and so timely!

Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy) said...

Care and southernmatrix ~ hope you both enjoy it! It's a great read. A happy (and prosperous) New Year to you both!

Jessica said...

Wonderful - I ran across this title a while ago and was thinking of reading it - after reading your review, I'm putting it next on my list. Thanks!

Amy said...

I just today finished reading this and loved it. My only quibble was the ending felt a little rushed. But that might be because I didn't want it to end.

Anonymous said...

I just noticed that you did this review. I caught this book on Audible earlier this year and was struck by its timeliness and just how close to the edge we are all living.

We're all a few months or a few weeks or a few days from dealing drugs and hanging out with Pop on the couch watching The Rockford Files while wondering about the tap tap tapping from the laptop in the other room.

Wonderful sentiment, tightly drawn characters and an all-too-familiar general theme made this one a melancholy read.

Cavalier92 said...

I just noticed that you had read and reviewed this book. I listened to it via Audible earlier this year and was struck by how sad and poignant it is while still managing to retain the idea that the folks in it are good people just trying to do their best.

We are all Matthew Prior, over-educated and underemployed, just a week or a month away from losing our dream house. we're sitting on the couch with Pop watching the Rockford Files and heading out to 7-11 to deal some pot, trying to dull the taptaptap from the laptop in the other room.

Well maybe we're not THAT far gone, but some days it feels like it.

A melancholy read that I had not expected to catch me quite as hard as it did.