Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter

Happy New Year, everybody! Guess it's time I got to work on closing out the reviews of last year's reads, huh? Here goes...

Obviously, she knows I'm out of work and that we're in debt (she helped us get there) but she doesn't know, for example, that today Richard is cashing out what's left of my retirement so I can make a deferred balloon payment to the mortgage company next week, "After the meeting with Richard," I tell her, "I'll go see the employment counselor. Then I've scheduled a bank robbery. Then I'm selling my organs to buy food. It's a glorious day in Matt-topia."

Lisa has learned to ignore self-pity disguised as humor - my metier.

Matt Prior's life as he knew it is circling the drain the night he heads out to the 7-Eleven for some overpriced milk. He lost his job some months ago, the job he was forced to crawl back to after he risked it all on a website venture dedicated to financial advice written in mediocre poetry. It's starting to seem inevitable that he will lose his house if he doesn't come up with a significant sum of money before week's end. His wife is carrying on an affair of sorts with an old boyfriend via Facebook and text messages, and his dad's mental health is declining rapidly. When Matt, shuffling under the fluorescent lights of the 7-Eleven in his bedroom slippers, happens upon two of the sorts of guys that you'd rather not run into in a 7-Eleven he soon finds himself driving the two stoners to a party and smoking way better weed than he ever smoked in college. With a clarity that only weed can produce, Matt knows that this weed is the weed that can solve all his problems. He just needs to sell it.

The Financial Lives of the Poets drew an inevitable comparison to the TV show Weeds for me. Both are at once laugh out loud funny and sad in their biting satirization of what the American dream has become. Mercilessly does Jess Walter spear the new American family unit that builds its ambitious life on hard work and mountains of debt. He harpoons the people who seemingly without a second thought take out loans on houses and cars they never had any hope of affording sold to them by slick salesmen peddling an unrealistic way of life. Walter mocks the people who, once they've attained some semblance of security, throw it away on goofy dreams and online shopping binges all the while ignoring the important things in life like their spouses, their children, and their friends.

Hidden within Walter's laugh out loud satire, however, is a set of real, recognizable characters that draw readers' sympathies. There's Matt who got lost while he was trying to find his dreams, who can't sleep at night for worrying about what fate will befall his family now that he's failed as their provider. There's his wife, Lisa, who desperately misses the powerful, sexy career woman she used to be before she gave it up for kids. There's Matt's father who is slowly going senile, but still thinks he's "got it" because he can't remember that a stripper named Charity took him for all he was worth. There are countless would-be customers of Matt's pot dealing scheme who feel like they need to have a smoke just to make it through a day at the office. These are people we know, and in some cases these are people we are, and despite all his squeezing them into ridiculous situations for laughs, Walter doesn't let us forget that. The Financial Lives of the Poets is an engaging story of a family gone awry full of cannily delivered truths and a potent satire of life in today's USA.

It was Franklin's favorite game a couple of years ago, Jenga. ... I stare at the beams in my front yard, stacked crosswise, and it comes to me that life is a version of that children's game: pull one from the bottom, and stack it on top and try to keep the whole thing from falling. Slide a board out, stack it on top, the structure growing taller as the weight shifts upward, until the base begins to look like lattice, and pretty soon you realize you're holding your breath, that there are no more safe moves, but still you must try, always try, because that's the you look for a board to slide, gently...slide...gently...even though you can never win, and it's always the same...breathless and tentative...the world teetering above your head.

(My copy provided for review by Erica at Harper Perennial. Thanks!)


  1. I got a copy of this at SIBA at Heather's (Raging Bibliomania) urging. I'm so glad to see you loved it too - it sounds fantastic!

  2. I am glad you liked this one, Megan. I find the title is a bit off-putting, but I've read so many positive reviews of this one that I may have to overlook that and give it a try. I do like books that delve into family issues. Great review!

  3. This sounds fantastic. I love laugh out loud books. I haven't read one in a long time. Thanks for the recommendation

  4. This sounds like a good one Megan; great review. (added to the TBR)..LOL

  5. I keep hearing good things about this one but have yet to pick it up. I'll have to keep my eyes out for a copy.

  6. great review! I really liked this book too - loved Walters's comic, satirical style. Glad you liked it too!