The Financial Lives of the Poets

A smart, witty novel about a nice, middle-class dad tempted to try crime to keep his family afloat.

The Financial Lives of the Poets By Jess Walter HarperCollins 304 pp., $25.99

You think you’ve got problems? Just try being Matt Prior. He’s lost not only his job but his profession (newspaper journalist – a field that’s not likely to revive anytime soon) and it looks like his house and wife are about to follow. It’s all going south – and then he gets a truly terrible idea as to how to hold it together.

As grim as that may sound, The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter is actually an extremely funny novel. Granted, you may spend a lot of your time wanting to shout things at the book (things like: “DON’T DO THAT!” and “Can’t you just once try TALKING to your wife??”), but for every such outburst you are also guaranteed at least a handful of dry chuckles and several out-loud hoots.

The plot of “The Financial Lives of the Poets” is set very firmly in the troubled economic climate of contemporary America. Not too terribly long before the events in the book, Prior was a reasonably successful financial journalist. In a fit of hubris, however, he quit his job to found a poetry-and-investment website specializing in what he calls “money lit” – creative essays, short fiction, memoirs, and – least likely of all – poetry on business and investment topics. “The writing about those things has always seemed so dry,” he laments. “My site was supposed to remedy that.”

Surprise, surprise – his unusual venture belly-flops. At that point, he goes back to business journalism – only to discover that most newspapers, his former employer included, are withering on the vine. Then comes the day that Prior wakes up to discover that – as a triple victim of the crash, the demise of traditional media, and the housing bubble – he is now six days away from the loss of his overpriced house. And so he turns to crime.

There are moments when “The Financial Lives of the Poets” seems to be dangerously glib about any number of very serious topics – drug-dealing, marital infidelity, bankruptcy, and senility (in the case of Prior’s father) included. And Prior’s language as narrator is generally more appropriate to a frat party than a family-friendly suburban home.

In this case, however, neither book nor protagonist should be underestimated. In addition to being a remarkably inept criminal, Prior is also a tender father and husband. Granted, his marriage has decayed. He and his wife seem more like “unindicted co-conspirators” than lovers. (When Prior comes to bed these nights, he generally finds Lisa snapping her cell phone shut – after a lingering conversation with her high school boyfriend, he suspects – and wearing “her giant, unsexy, population-control pajamas, made of burlap, fiberglass insulation, razor wire.”) But he loves her. And his terrible fear of losing her – and disrupting the lives of his innocent boys – is at the bottom of all his most misguided decisions.

The narrative itself, which at moments seems to teeter dangerously on the edge of becoming a sort of adolescent Ice Follies, actually turns out to be a very smart meditation on what’s gone wrong with both the US economy and those of us who are expected to keep it running.

When Prior visits a Home Depot-like store to spy on Lisa’s ex-boyfriend, he complains that its size “makes me feel like a leprechaun, a tiny sprite coming to this mystical woodland to shop among giants for a place to store my magic beans for the winter.” You may guffaw as you read, but you also share the aching comprehension that Prior is simply a likable everyman, swamped by an economy and an anything-goes, play-now-pay-later society that has created huge, out-of-scale problems that he has no idea how to solve.

In the end, it all turns out to be surprisingly simple – and even sweetly old-fashioned. Let’s just say that certain lessons we all should have learned in elementary school (be patient, follow the instructions, do good work) turn out to matter after all.

Prior’s path to such understanding may be messy and convoluted. But the narrative that takes him there is both cleverly designed and immensely entertaining.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.

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