Sunday, March 06, 2011

THE FINANCIAL LIVES OF THE POETS by Jess Walter (2009) HarperCollins Canada, 290 pages



I'd read a lot of enthusiastic comments online about Jess Walter's most recent novel and decided to pick up a copy to see what all the fuss was about. I was predisposed to like the book because of its loopy premise: finance journalist decides to quit his day job (at the worst possible economic moment) and tilt at the windmill of his dreams by creating a website devoted to such journalism written entirely in blank verse. Plus, the epigraph, attributed to Saul Bellow, "Poets have to dream and dreaming in America is no cinch," clinched it for me.

Matthew Prior and his wife Lisa have been circling the debt drain for months now, since Matt quit his job and Lisa embarked on an E-bay buying binge that resulted in boxes of unsellable stuffed animals and figurines piling up in their garage. In addition to their own obvious financial stress, they have two young boys to raise as well as Matt's increasingly demented father who lives with them.

One night, a fateful one it turns out, Matt heads out after midnight to the local 7/11 to pick up a jug of milk so his sons will have it for their breakfast cereal. There he meets some neighborhood stoners who lure him into sharing some of their stash. He complies and soon finds himself drawn to the tantalizing possibility of selling for profit to turn what remains of his 401K (whittled down to a measly 9K and change) into an amount that might allow him to produce a balloon payment for his overdue mortgage that will permit his family to stay in their home.

Matt loves his wife Lisa. He loves their sons. He's a responsible son to his increasingly confused father. However, he hasn't been truly honest with anyone and he keenly feels how everything that matters in his life is slipping away. And, really, it's his fault. So, as Lisa moves to her side of the bed and texts her high-school quarterback ex-beau, Matt plots how he can win her love and affection back. And, his plan isn't all that complicated, but it is illegal.

Soon Matt finds himself knee-deep in a drug cartel and then, more upsettingly, on working terms as a narc. All the while, he worries about his wife's growing attraction to gainfully employed, handyman-about-town Chuck the Lumberland King and processes situations that upset him by expressing his social satire through poetry. One of my favourites is the one spawned by a Costco visit where he sees a MILF with her "four kids/ little stepladders, two-four-six-eight" and she's wearing a thong and he wonders aloud, "When did Moms start wearing them?" And it seems to him "the Fabric of America/ would be just fine/ if there was little bit more of it/ in our mothers' underpants./ And that is the issue I will run on/ when I eventually run: getting our moms out of thongs/ and back into hammocks/ with leg holes." You're smiling, aren't you?

If desperate financial times call for desperate measures, it is no surprise that Matt has to hit rock bottom before he's able to see his way clear and find a route back to all he holds dear, when he is finally "broke but free."

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