Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Book: The Financial Lives of the Poets, by Jess Walter (2009)

Matthew Prior is in trouble. He’s been downsized from his newspaper job after the failure of his own business venture, a website offering financial advice in verse. A massive balloon payment is due on his house in a matter of days. He hasn’t told his wife about it because she’s busy preparing for an affair with her old boyfriend. Then Matt hits on a way to retain his redoubt in middle-middle class heaven. He’s going to sell primo pot to his fellow boomers. He’s even got a street name. Slippers.

Jess Walter covers a lot of ground in this novel: the immediate effects of the economic meltdown, the slow death of old media, the perils of social networking. So determined is he to pin down every aspect of life-at-this-instant that the overstuffed plot verges on antic. But each page brings a turn of phrase or an observation about contemporary America that is electrifying, laugh-out-loud funny, or both. And there are poems.

Walter, an Edgar Award winner, National Book Award nominee and author of the best crime novel you’ve never read, has a sharp yet forgiving eye. Matt notes, “Perhaps the most pathetic thing about long-married guys like me is the delusional list that each of us keeps in our heads, a list of women we think are secretly attracted to us.” He then introduces us to one of the names on his personal roster, an HR gatekeeper whose inappropriate suits are described as “0-2 fastballs – little high, little tight.”

Over the course of the book, Matt learns that there are no such things as epiphanies. But damned if he doesn’t keep having them even in the midst of the most mundane activities, like ordering dinner for his sons.

So I make one phone call, and just like that, we’re eating pizza at 6:30. What is this world? You tap seven abstract figures onto a piece of plastic thin as a billfold, hold that plastic device to your head, use your lungs and vocal chords to indicate more abstractions, and in thirty minutes, a guy pulls up in a 2,000-pound machine made on an island on the other side of the world, fueled by viscous liquid made from the rotting corpses of the dead organisms pulled from the desert on yet another side of the world and you give this man a few sheets of green paper representing the abstract wealth of your home nation, and he gives you a perfectly reasonable facsimile of one of the staples of the diet of a people from yet another faraway nation.

And the mushrooms are fresh.