Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter

There are a lot of books by late-Boomer or Gen X writers about middle-aged guys in distress -- centered on men who just lost long-term stable jobs,  often having lost wives to death or divorce or just barely holding on to a marriage, in deep financial trouble, with kids of whatever age that he either loves to death or no longer understands, living in the iconic big house in the suburbs -- and particularly over the past decade and a half, since the dot-com crash first showed that cohort that the endless economic rise of the '90s was not going to be the pattern of the rest of our lives.

I've read several of those, despite disliking the idea -- I've had my own career crises twice in the past decade ('07 and '15), and I've never been the kind to find Schadenfreude in reading about fictional men with my same problems but more so. But they keep coming out, and keep getting laudatory reviews by jobbing journalists who know their industry has shed 200,000 jobs since 1990, so I may be atypical in that.

That brings us to Jess Walter's The Financial Lives of the Poets, which I thought was about a guy who launched a website providing financial news and advice in verse form -- I even thought some of the book would itself be in verse. I was wrong; that website has crashed and died well before page one of this novel, and our first-person hero (Matthew Prior) is deep in the shit, deep in denial, and deep into his lies to his inevitably lovely and super-capable wife Lisa. [1]

Matt has no job, despite all of his nervous-bunny energy and searches, and he's been hiding the family's true financial picture from Lisa -- and, of course, everything is about to collapse. Even worse, he's essentially stopped sleeping out of stress, which does not help him make good decisions. So, when a late-night 7-11 run for milk for the kids tosses him in with some young local druggies, he finds himself going along with them just out of pure inertia. And that leads to a Brilliant Plan to recapitalize his family: he'll cash out their last tiny bit of savings for seed capital, use that to buy drugs, and sell to all of his affluent friends!

This is the first of several Brilliant Plans that Matt has over the course of the novel, none of which are particularly brilliant, and none of which, sadly, come to fruition. (I'd have been up for either a black-comedy pothead Breaking Bad or a loopy jumping-from-one-scheme-to-the-next-just-fast-enough-to-keep-going caper book, but Walter wasn't.) Walter is writing an essentially literary novel, and literary novels are all about consequences and sadness and bad things happening to characters that we like.

So Matt's hubris is clobbered by nemesis, as it must be. Along the way, Financial Lives of the Poets is a pleasant read, but it didn't really sing to me. Several of the quotes on the cover call it a farce, but I wouldn't agree: Matt is farcical, as are his plans, but the events around him don't go along with his notions, but remain stubbornly real the whole time.

What this is, to my mind, is a serio-comic literary novel with the muffled downer ending that subgenre requires. And I suspect a lot of the rapturous praise was because it came out so quickly on the heels of the '08 crash, and held up a mirror to the way many people were thinking about their lives right then. Being of the moment can be a big advantage -- but only so long as that moment lasts.

[1] My theory is that many of these books are transmuted autobiography, so the author who wants to continue to stay married needs to make the fictional wife utterly blameless and as close to perfect as his writing ability allows.

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