Jess Walter’s latest novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets, is one fun and timely read. Beginning in medias res, narrator Matt Prior is two years into a glorious downfall, having lost his job and on his way now to losing his home to foreclosure and wife to a former flame. Chronicling the outrageous (but not necessarily farfetched) events that take place the week before the Priors owe a large balloon payment to their mortgage company, The Financial Lives of the Poets reads as a classically American story of redemption, set in the modern Great Recession.
Matt Prior is the prototypical “victim” of the current economic environment. That is, a victim of his own poor choices as well as the unscrupulously regulated financial system that together resulted in the Great Recession. The narrator admits, “We’ve lived beyond our means, spent the future, sapped resources, lived on the bubble.” It is this combination that leads Matt to carry out an ill-advised plan of selling some weed he procures after encountering a group of stoners late at night at a 7-Eleven. Over the course of the next week, Matt attempts to save his home from foreclosure by way of his new high-risk career while at the same time sleuthing to determine how far his wife’s recent Facebook flirtation with an old boyfriend has progressed. These storylines, in addition to other entertaining asides (Franklin and the clacker fight!), make for an engaging read that I found hard to put down.
While one of the greatest draws of The Financial Lives of the Poets is its hilarious prose, the novel also succeeds in telling the more serious story of a family’s redemption. Beneath the surface of the protagonist’s funny, self-deprecating attitude is a man genuinely in crisis. Each of the sureties he has come to depend on in his upper-middle-class existence—his home, his wife, his job—is in jeopardy, if not lost already. Because the reader can identify closely with his great need to retain these affinities, one cannot help but root for Matt as he attempts to gain back his life, regardless of his method. In the end, though Walter does not let his protagonist off the hook completely, he does, fortunately, offer Matt and his family a quintessentially American second chance at getting it right.
Despite its hokey title and deceptively light premise, Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets offers an insightful look into contemporary American life. Funny and intelligent, this book comes highly recommended.