Finally a story from that long ago time in American economic history: The Great Recession!
Jess Walter’s “The Financial Lives of the Poets” tackles the financial and emotional complexities of 2008 in such a way that it almost feels as if we are still living in that horrific time. Remember when the housing market plummeted, people lost their jobs and the world seemed to be such an uncertain place?
For Matt Prior, this image is all-too-fresh in Walter’s sarcastic yet poetic interpretation of financial Armageddon. As a finance columnist, Matt should have had some kind of understanding of this impending doom. At least that is the prevailing belief: that somehow these guys have a crystal ball into the future and can warn the general public of the potential pitfalls or at the very least, save themselves. But that is just not how it works. These finance gurus are hype guys at best, most of which have drunk from their own poisoned wells.
As Matt finds himself standing outside of a 7-Eleven-wondering where his life went wrong, the weight of his mortgage, unemployment, and floundering marriage forcing the very air from his lungs-someone graciously offers him a way out. This life jacket comes in the form of a joint at the hand of two young punks named Skeet and Jamie. Before long, Matt Prior, former journalist and failed creator of Poetfolio.com (yes, it is exactly what it sounds like-financial advice in poem form) is so turned around that he cannot come up with any logical reason why he should not solve his financial woes by becoming a drug dealer. In his sleep-deprived mind, this is the only sure-fire way to guarantee that his family can keep the house and payoff some of their other debts, and it is just until he finds work.
Matt weaves in and out of his dysfunctional life, trying to piece together some sense of normalcy. He tries in vain to “contact his lender” as his mortgage has been sold to banks that end up failing then other banks jump into the fray, picking up right where the last left off, and so on and so forth to the point where he is not exactly sure who is lender even is anymore. He struggles to take care of his father, whom they have taken in after his own financial failings-namely giving all of his money to a stripper named Charity. He does reconnaissance missions on Chuck at the lumber yard, his wife’s “friend” and former flame. He seethes over the boxes of EBay junk in the garage that his wife bought as part of her own investment strategy. He shuffles papers and hides the pink-tinged final notices from his family so that only he knows how bad it really is. All in all, he has a very busy life before adding drug dealer to the mix, and from there he just falls deeper and deeper into a seemingly bottomless pit.
Walter’s genius is the in the layout of the book as well as its storyline. Matt often narrates his thoughts in poem form and imagines these completely outlandish situations. Yet, the storyline itself is a series of outlandish situations that Matt really does find himself in. Plus, the story is set up like one big comic routine, where punch lines are constantly revisited and expanded upon. It is the tone of the sarcastic poetry and daydream scenarios that lightens the utterly destitute nature of Matt’s life. Still, he often has lucid moments in which his “profound” realizations about the world truly are profound and meaningful.
Despite its comedic nature, “The Financial Lives of the Poets” is ultimately a novel of human capacity. It speaks to the great lengths people will go to in order to survive and the inherent realization that humanity did in fact exist and thrive before private schools and big houses in the “right” neighborhoods and Wii consoles and EBay.