Sunday, November 14, 2010

Review: The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter

The Financial Lives of the Poets: A Novel (P.S.)                         The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter is a comic novel set against the backdrop of the recent economic collapse in the US - comic and economic collapse seem an odd pair but Walters's talent makes it work.  His story of Matt Prior, middle age father of two whose marriage is beginning to unhinge as he struggles to pay his out of control mortgage while trying to find a job and take care of his aging father, highlights the desperation felt by many Americans who feel overextended.

Matt Prior, father to Teddy and Franklin, is on the brink of losing his home to foreclosure and desperately trying to get a reprieve from his lender so that he doesn't disappoint the wife he is afraid he has already lost or condemn his children to a move from their private school to the local public school which he has termed "Alcatraz Elementary".  When Matt encounters some pot smokers on a nightly milk run to 7/11, he gets a welcome break from his troubles courtesy of his new found "friends".  From a few tokes on the way home from the 7/11, a plan is born and before long Matt is selling pot and being considered for ownership of a weed farm.

Things get even more unbelievable from there but the novel holds the reader's attention with it's witty, smart satire.  Amidst the crumbling of Matt Prior's life and the half-baked (pun intended) plan to raise cash by selling pot to his fellow middle aged professionals, Walter makes wry observations about 21st century American life.  For example:
" . . . and I suppose the devil only needs the tiniest hoofhold because two stops later I'm actually ginning the numbers (ponziing myself!) and I'm up to my ears in that peculiar bastard of American calculus, that ol' bad math, macro-optimistic flawed formula of Keynesian interventionist Mall-of-the-America bliss, endless exponential derivation . . . ."
He mourns the loss of values so strongly held by our parents and longs for the simplicity of times gone by:
"My father did pass on plenty of wisdom, of course, a lot of it incidental, like other men from his generation, hints and clues glimpsed through his unfailing work ethic and his refusal to ever complain about anything.  No matter what happened, the man soldiered on - got up every day and put on that tie and went to a job that he knew was beneath his abilities - and anyone who thinks there is anything more profoundly inspiring than that is fooling himself" 
Walter's ability to skillfully combine these wry observations with sharp dialogue and imperfect characters makes this a book I won't soon forget.

I attended an event at the Center for Fiction entitled "On The Comic Novel" and it featured Sam Lipsyte ("The Ask") and Jess Walter.  Each read from their recent novels and then discussed what made a novel "comic" versus merely humorous.  They also discussed how comic novels often don't get the same respect (think awards) afforded their more serious counterparts.  I have recently discovered the comic novel and realize it is a genre I really enjoy - anyone have recommendations for my next comic novel pick? 

Thank you to Trish at TLC Book Tours
for providing this book for review.  Check out this link 
for other reviews of the book


  1. I'm glad to see that you enjoyed this novel. Even though it was one of the strangest books I read, I really liked it. I didn't realize that this was a comic novel, so thanks for sharing that!

  2. I'm one of the few who didn't particularly enjoy this one, but I can definitely see your points. I don't think I've ever considered the difference between comic and humorous. Interesting.

  3. This book sounds really interesting. It didn't initially jump out at me as fitting in my genre but I a lot of reviews are swaying me to want to try it.

  4. Hmmm, well I guess I'm not too sure what the difference is except that I "feel" like I know. I really want to read Jonathan Tropper's This is Where I Leave You which I imagine is in that category?? Or maybe The Human Bobby by Gabe Rotter? I haven't read either one yet.

  5. Nice review! I loved this book, too - funny how funny tragedy can be! My favorite passage is when Matt's in the home improvement store, scouting his wife's supposed lover:
    "He stops in the aisle of how-to books and clicks his tongue as he runs his hand across the spines of books that show how to do simple electrical work and how to repair and carburetor and how to fix a clogged sink and how to build a porch and how to stain your fence and, finally, how to build a tree fort. This long bookshelf seems taken directly from my insecurities — an entire library of things I cannot do. In the next aisle of this hell-library would be books about how to manage your billions and what to do with your foot-long penis."

  6. i'm so glad you enjoyed this book too! it's definitely one of my favorite and i have to say i'm jealous that you were able to meet him!

  7. This sounds like a book I would enjoy. It would be refreshing to read something comic about the financial collapse. I'm adding it to my list.

  8. How cool that you got to hear Jess speak! No suggestions for new comic novels though ... it's not a genre I usually read.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour - I'm glad you enjoyed the book!

  9. I also think this sounds like a great book.
    I tried to tweet this review and got an error using your social networking buttons on the bottom of the post.

  10. I was really impressed by the way Walter was able to find the humor in all of these terrible situations but still build tension.