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BY DAVID DUHR

Drop what you’re doing right now, and read Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets.  See other entries in this series here.

Once upon a time, before The Financial Lives of the Poets opens, Matt Prior was a successful financial journalist with a smoking-hot wife, a stately house, a snappy sports car, and plenty of leftover cash. The world was his oyster—but pearls weren’t enough. Prior wanted more. So he quit his job to build PoetFolio.com, a site dedicated to offering stock tips and financial news in “pedestrian, amateurish” blank verse. Like so many others living the dream, Prior told himself, “You deserve this, you are a fucking American.”

Jess Walter disagrees, and spends the next 280+ pages making Prior pay for his sense of entitlement. By the time the novel opens, a couple years after this big-balled venture, Prior is hurtling toward rock bottom. PoetFolio.com has failed (lack of porn), the now-fledgling west-coast newspaper has laid him off after a short-lived return, his wife Lisa is cyberfucking an ex-boyfriend, and his senile father has taken up residence in front of the television. The garage overflows with trinkets and toys from Lisa’s failed eBay business. The couple’s two sons are in an expensive Catholic school. Prior needs to scrape together $30k or lose the house in a week, his 401(k) has turned into a “4(k),” his financial advisor has diagnosed him with “fiscal ebola,” and the boys need milk for their morning cereal.

So Prior heads to 7/11, runs into two white gangbangers, takes a hit of their joint, and discovers that, wow, these kids today have some strong weed:

I suppress a cough. Nose runs. Eyes burn. Someone is composting leaves in my throat. Scraping my lungs with a shovel.

From this moment on, Matt Prior has a new career.

The Financial Lives of the Poets is a novel both hilarious and touching. Prior is a man afloat. The waves are crashing down on him, the bankruptcy sharks are circling, and he clings to a tiny little raft made of hemp. He stands a good chance of losing everything, yet stubbornly refuses to give up his sense of humor and his love for his family.  It’s this humor that makes the novel so much fun, and the love that makes it so endearing.

The humor: Prior is pretty sure that Lisa, who around the house wears her “giant, unsexy, population-control pajamas made of burlap, fiberglass, razor wire,” is having an actual (and not just online) affair with ex-boyfriend Chuck, a lumber salesman who Prior imagines will build for Lisa a cabin made of “tree bark and his own nut hair.” The love: Prior’s youngest, Franklin, attacks a classmate at school with a musical instrument, but at home Franklin’s garbage can is “like the kid himself, heartbreaking — a half-eaten sneaked sucker thrown away in guilt, a pair of crapped underpants he hoped to hide, a scary picture of a monster he’s torn from a book.”

As Prior’s marriage, finances, and his foray into the drug world spiral out of control, he begins to lose his grip on his thoughts and surroundings. A drug dealer orders Prior to disrobe for a strip search, so Prior takes off his shirt and, “for some reason,” folds it and sets it gently on the sofa. During a police interrogation with an overly knowing cop, Prior decides, “I don’t mind someone telling me what I’m thinking. It’s nice.” These days, just ordering a pizza is enough to leave him dumbfounded:

So I make one phone call, and just like that, we’re eating pizza at 6:30. What is this world? You tap seven abstract figures onto a piece of plastic thin as a billfold, hold that plastic device to your head, use your lungs and vocal chords to indicate more abstractions, and in thirty minutes a guy pulls up in a 2,000-pound machine made on an island on the other side of the world, fueled by viscous liquid made from the rotting corpses of dead organisms pulled from the desert on yet another side of the world and you give this man a few sheets of green paper representing the abstract wealth of your home nation, and he gives you a perfectly reasonable facsimile of one of the staples of the diet of a people from yet another faraway nation.

And the mushrooms are fresh.

Walter uses his character’s unraveling to take a flurry of jabs (often through that “pedestrian, amateurish verse” of Prior’s) at corporate America, economists, TV pundits, mortgage lenders, and the like, but it is those who have brought down the newspaper industry to whom Walter directs the majority of his wrath. To understand Jess Walter’s feelings about the death of newspapers, read Chapter 7, a fifteen-line poem where Prior takes the reader through a dream he has about delivering to his father the very last newspaper ever printed:

my old man told me not to cry, that even good things die,

son, and he folded that paper back up and tucked

the only good thing I ever did under his arm, easing back

into the warm house of my dead childhood to take

his morning shit.

(Walter, a journalist himself, dedicates this book to his “dismayed and displaced newspaper friends, whose talent and commitment deserve a better world.”)

But while Walter revels in criticizing those who have helped hasten our downturn, he doesn’t forget to have Prior take a couple of glances in the mirror. Admitting that we’ve brought our own troubles on our own selves by overreaching is a key step toward recovery. Prior’s own recovery, though open-ended, is pleasant and full of hope, and makes for a satisfying conclusion to this excellent novel.

When the last daily shuts down its presses (“somewhere around 2015,” according to Prior/Walter), The Financial Lives of the Poets will be the novel to read.

Or you can read this book now. It has plenty to say about the places we’ve been, the shape we’re in, and where we may be headed if we’re not careful. And it’s damn funny.

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