Jess Walter’s new novel is a very funny book. It’s too bad it has such an odd title, “The Financial Lives of the Poets,” which in only the smallest way has anything really to do with it. No matter. The book is way better than the title.
The opening chapter is called “7/11” and leads with a poem (as does every chapter) – an Allen Ginsberg ode, of sorts, to the after-midnight crowd at the local 7-Eleven:
Here they are again – the bent boys, bake
and buzzed boys, wasted, red-eyed, dry-mouth
high boys, coursing narrow bright aisles
hunting food as fried as they are, twitchy
hands wadding bills they spill
on the counter, so pleased and so
proud, as if they’re the very
inventors of stoned –
Matt Prior – unemployed business reporter, father of two sons, long time husband of a hardworking wife, caretaker of an increasingly senile father, and hopelessly in debt – is waiting in this scruffy line to buy a nine dollar half gallon of milk for his kids’ morning cereal. His life really sucks. Within three pages he is toking weed with two amiable gangbanger wannabes in the parking lot and offering them a ride to some rave-up. More than that odd title, this little scene is what this book is really about.
Desperately “thumbjacking the morphine pump like it could save her life,” Matt’s cancer-ridden, drugged, fearful-of-death-and-terrorists mother asks him on her deathbed: “Do you think there will be another 7/11?” He doesn’t bother correcting her.
As it turns out for Matt and his family, the local 7-Eleven has more to do with the destruction of his financially excessive life than the 9/11 attack did. Beneath the clever plot and contemporary wit, Walter’s novel is really about how we Americans took ourselves down with $9 milk and doubled up home equity loans rather than by evangelical jihadists from across the seas.
Walter is a former newspaper guy and much of the novel deals with the death of the daily papers. Matt has no kind words for the typical “work out” editor who lays him off: “At my mid-sized newspaper, the soul-disabled publisher scoured the various newspaper chains until he found the perfect budget-hacking delusional jargon-monkey, a man driven out of every crappy newspaper he ever ruined, a man who – in my humble opinion – is at the very least a narcissist, and at worst, a complete sociopath.”
Before the axe-man comes to the paper, Matt resigns to follow a dream to run his own business on the internet. He invests all of his pre-crash equity in an ill-fated on-line weekly delivering his own only so-so poetry and the financial news. In its short launch the project burns through his nut just about when the bank realizes there is no longer enough equity in his house to get it out from underwater. Although his paper takes him back for a few months, foreclosure is weeks away and the loan has been bundled and sold so many times Matt all but drowns in the various institutional automated phone menus.
Desperate men do desperate things. His toking gangbanger buddies are looking for an upscale connection to move some weight in the safer world of suburbia. Matt gets his financial advisor to convert what’s left of his 401k (his “4k”) to cash for his first big buy. The check is pitifully small as his advisor explains: “Well, after penalties…taxes, commissions…” “Wait,” I said, “you took a commission? Do travel agents take commissions on flights that go down?” This may sound a little like the suburban moms of “Weeds,” but Walter takes Matt’s new job down a path more serious than any dope sitcom. Things go bad…guns, beatings, DEA and all.
In the very today world of “The Financial Lives of the Poets,” Matt and his family are the stand-ins for all of us and must pay for their sins: “for profligate spending, for reliance on debt, for unwise loans and the morons we elected, for the CEO’s we overpaid, the unfunded wars we waged.” As the drug dealing “business” caves and the bank calls all their mortgage and equity lines, the Priors are left only with the bankruptcy chapters: take your choice – 7 or 11.
Still married, still taking care of Dad and the boys, Matt and Lisa find no simple path. “I think we are supposed to somehow be better off now, out from all those middle-class weights and obligations and debts, all the lies we stacked above our heads…But it’s not easy, realizing how we fucked it all up. And that turns out to be the hardest thing to live with…the realization that the edge is so close to where we live.”
Yes, this is a funny book, but not funny just to be funny. Our collective financial mess is real, and Walter does a nice job of entertainingly exposing it to us; until it is no longer just entertaining. and we scratch our heads and say to ourselves: “Damn. I better dump the iPhone…and stay out of 7-Elevens.”