Boy oh boy, this is a funny book. Which is odd, as it’s about serious stuff: financial pressures and economic meltdown, unemployment and marital estrangement, raising kids in tough times, caring for aging parents in tough times. Binge shopping makes an appearance, as does 9/11 and substance abuse—actually, there’s lots and lots of substance abuse. But trust me, this is a funny book nonetheless. Of course, the funniest books—or movies or knock-knock jokes or stand-up routines—are often about serious stuff, right? Think Lenny Bruce, or Life of Brian.
The Financial Lives of the Poets tells the story of Matthew Prior, a retired-then-rehired-then-fired newspaperman whose big idea, a few years ago, was to combine financial advice and free verse on a web site called poetfolio.com. Unsurprisingly, this idea tanked, but not before gobbling up much of his savings, and when he went back to work for the newspaper he had quit, layoffs caught up with him after just four months. Now he is unemployed, in debt, and in serious danger of losing his house. Oh and his wife Lisa is probably having an affair with a guy who sells lumber. Seriously.
Matthew is a thoughtful man but he’s also a self-pitying whiner, but he’s also kind of smart, but he’s also an idiot, but he’s also a loving husband and father, but he also gets impatient with his own aging dad, but he also does his best to live up to his responsibilities, but he also makes some recklessly bad decisions—in other words, he’s a lot like any of us. In the very first chapter we meet him at the 7/11, buying milk at midnight, which is a story in itself. There he meets a crew of stoner dudes, allows himself on a whim to get high with them, and proceeds to make the first of that series of poor decisions. Or wait—maybe getting high was the first bad decision. Or maybe it was shopping at 7/11, where “the milk is like nine dollars a gallon.” Or maybe it was the whole poetry/financial advice website thing…
Matthew relates his trials in a voice that is equally frenzied and despairing, in the cadences of a man who once believed the world was his for the taking and now fears that everything will soon be taken. “It’s almost as if Lisa and I deserve this. Or believe we do. And I don’t think we’re alone. It’s as if the whole country believes we’ve done something to deserve this collapse, this global warming and endless war, this pile of shit we’re in.” When he pays a visit to the lumber yard to eyeball the man he believes is sleeping with his wife, he finds the shelves of how-to books daunting with their manuals on carpentry and auto repair and plumbing. “This long bookshelf seems taken directly from my insecurities—an entire library of things I cannot do. In the next aisle of this hell-library would be books about how to manage your billions and what to do with your foot-long penis.”
The strains in his marriage are especially wearing on him, but he does his best to cope. “Note,” he helpfully tells the reader, “for future marriage-enriching behavior, avoid Nazi humor.” Several pages later, after numerous tense exchanges with Lisa, comes the plaintive declaration, “I don’t want to have to work on my marriage. I just want to have it.”
Matthew may be competent in some things—if he is to believed, he was once a decent journalist, although that skill gets him little these days, as newspapers chop their staffs on a regular basis. In other ways, he is breathtakingly naïve, with the result that he winds up in compromising situations, which he escapes by compromising himself further, until finally he’s in a room with some guy who wants to look up his ass. No, really. “I try to remember the last time anyone has looked up my ass, which would be, oh, let’s see: never. I begin to unbutton my pants.”
If this sounds slapstick, it is—but that’s not all it is. There’s real heart to this book, and a sense of genuine urgency, in part because of the pitch-perfect characterizations of the supporting characters: Lisa and the two kids, Matthew’s father, the disreputable types he becomes involved with in a desperate scheme to placate the bank that’s threatening to foreclose. (It’s desperately difficult to avoid spoilers in talking about this book, as the plot begins twisting within the first few chapters, so most of these elements are present from the very beginning.)
Author Jess Walter, whose 2007 novel The Zero was a finalist for the National Book Award, pulls off an admirable feat in resolving the strands in this irresolvable situation while simultaneously avoiding patness. The Financial Lives of the Poets is the kind of novel with broad appeal—its topicality, humor, and emotional resonance will find appreciative readers of all types. It’s tough to end this kind of book on a satisfying note, but Walter manages the trick. Sometimes the best way to cope with pain is to laugh at it; this book might help you do that.