Jess Walter is a writer who refuses to write books that will allow him to be pigeon-holed. His Citizen Vince is the darkly funny and oddly warm story of Vince Camden, a low-level hoodlum relocated by the Witness Protection Program to Spokane from New York, coming to terms with his new environment in the only way he knows how. His next novel, The Zero, could not be more different; it is the vaguely surrealistic story of Brian Remy, an amnesiac cop recruited by a government agency to gather paper scattered in the attacks on 9/11.
And now The Financial Lives of the Poets gives us Matt Prior, possibly the most relatable character Walter has written. He's forty-something, unemployed, and awash in debt. He and his wife have a big, big mortgage, having bought a great house in a bad neighborhood when prices were up, then poured tons of money into remodeling and upgrading. Matt had been a business reporter at a newspaper but he left his reasonably secure job to venture out on his own in the world of cyber-reporting. Poetfolio.com. Doesn't that sound wonderful? Business and financial news delivered in a variety of poetic forms. Each chapter begins with one of Matt's poems, which he disparagingly refers to as pedestrian and amateurish but some of which I found to be quite lovely. Unfortunately, Matt was unable to make a go of it, and, though the newspaper took him back he was among the first to go in a recession-related personnel purge.
The Financial Lives of the Poets opens with a sequence that perfectly sets the tone, both of the novel and how its action will play out, and of Matt Prior's character. Matt is waiting in line to buy milk at the 7/11, a semi-regular occurrence despite it being "like, nine dollars a gallon." He remembers his mother in her last days, worrying that the terrorists would pull off another event like "7/11" (in a beautiful, spot-on writerly touch, each time Matt thinks of 9/11 throughout the novel he thinks of it as 7/11). And then, leaving the convenience store with the milk for which he could ill afford to pay the jacked up price, Matt has an interaction with a couple of young men hanging around outside. One thing leads to another in a bizarre if seemingly inevitable way, and Matt ends up driving the guys to a party and smoking some dope with them on the way, something he hasn't done since his college days. Why haven't I done this in so long, Matt thinks to himself, and, I bet I know a lot of people just like me who haven't smoked but would like to, and, at the prices weed is going for these days I could make enough money to make that balloon payment coming due…
The rest of the book takes place over a sleepless week, during which Matt takes care of his two sons and father, who has Alzheimer's, worries about his wife's blossoming Facebook (and possible real world) affair with an old boyfriend, smokes an awful lot of dope, worries about paying the mortgage and the private school tuition, smokes more dope, and makes arrangements to spend his entire pathetic retirement account of $9,000 on product which he intends to resell to his peers and former coworkers. Matt is borne along on a series of events ridiculous, pathetic, hilarious, in a manner which is all too believable.
The Financial Lives of the Poets is a nearly perfect book. It's beautifully written. It's funny. And, most of all, it has heart.