Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets told of the struggles of some 50 of his contemporary 18th-century English versifiers, John Milton, Alexander Pope and John Dryden among them. Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets is the brutally-comic tale of aspiring contemporary poet, laid-off business reporter and family man Matthew Prior. Walter’s novel is a twist on the familiar story in which a man unsatisfied with the American dream turns to drugs, drink, women or all three in an attempt to find some meaning, thereby risking his home, family and whatever respectability he may have earned. In Walter’s novel, the American dream goes sour, forcing Matthew into the drug subculture in an attempt to salvage what remains of his life.
Prior’s not totally innocent and makes at least one bad choice along the way, if, that is, you think dealing weed to keep your family fed and housed is a bad choice. Circumstances that have become familiar fodder in the last year or so—falling home values, job loss, foreclosure—all catch up with him at once. Was it so bad that Prior and his wife pursued their dream home, even if the neighborhood public school wasn’t the greatest? Was it wrong to bring his memory-challenged father, recent victim of a stripper named Charity, into his happy home? Can he be blamed for chucking a successful journalism career to go into business on his own with the dot-com, financial-info-in-free-verse site poetfolio.com? Okay, maybe that last bit doesn’t seem wise.
Walter has strung together a litany of problems pulled right from the headlines—including the decline of newspapers–to befuddle our hero. The results are predictable. His children begin to pull away. Likewise his wife, who spends all her time upstairs on her computer, carrying on a flirtation with a guy from the local lumber yard. His mortgage holder seems to ignore his attempts at contact, shuffling him off to more and more distant realms of automated phone land.
So where does Prior find the promise of rescue from his troubles? Why late night at the local 7/11, of course. There, where milk costs “like nine dollars a gallon,” he runs into a couple of pot-head, wannabe bangers named Skeet and Jamie. Next thing we know, our man is sucking down some Frankensteined herb and giving his new comrades a ride to a less-than-exciting party.
If the results are predictable and the book’s conclusion anti-climactic in its optimistic stoicism, at least the way through is full of unpredictable, comic surprises. Walter has given us a vivid, sensitive character who, through circumstance, is forced into his bad decisions. In the beginning, Walter seems to say that modern life is stacked against us so why not take a chance? His answer? That kind of gamble plays against a stacked deck.
Walter introduces a host of themes to his tale, ranging from fidelity to financial corruption. Early on, we think that Walter is suggesting, as we believed back in the ’60s, that there’s hope in dope as he and his middle-age acquaintances realize how much now-desperately-needed soothing the evil weed once brought them. Ultimately, this is a book about the consequences of sleep deprivation.
Walter’s great at finding the small, everyday truths in our lives, including the ironies in encouraging our children to always make “good choices” and the observation that men create “a delusional list of women who secretly long to sleep” with them, no matter how absurd the pairing.
Beneath the surface of Walter’s tale lurks the relationship of art to our day-to-day to survival. Poetry. like weed, provides solace, as well as a step-back way to consider life. Matthew’s poetry—nearly every chapter starts with a poem of some sort—is a mixed, mostly comic bag, ranging from decent image building (“And I wonder if we don’t live like water/seeking a level/a low bed/until one day we just go dry” or “the Fabric of America/would be just fine/if there was a little bit more of it/in our mothers’ underpants.”) to mimed indulgence (“Whose wood this is I think I know”). Some of it embraces haiku and other form. Much of it serves to move the plot (“How much capital does a consortium need/(I’ve got four hundred in the bank)/To buy four million dollars in weed?”).
The best images can be found in Walter’s prose, as when the lumber dumped in his front yard reminds him of the building block game Jenga and its teetering conclusion. He’s also good at finding the clichés of modern life and stringing them together in despondent litanies: “It’s as if the whole country believes we’ve done something to deserve this collapse, this global warming and endless war, this pile of shit we’re in. We’ve lived beyond our means, spent the future, sapped resources, lived on the bubble.”
The book’s most troubling image doesn’t appear in the text but on the cover: a man falling from the sky. This terrible visual carries a poignant suggestion of 9/11 (echoed in the book’s constant references to 7/11) that seems much too serious for this comic drama. There’s been too much of this in recent years, the image exploited in everything from Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to the opening credits for Mad Men. The Rabbit, who lives in a hole, wants everyone standing on solid ground.–Cabbage Rabbit