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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Book Snapshots: "The Financial Lives of the Poets" by Jess Walter.

Author Jess Walter writes very, very well.  In his novel The Financial Lives of the Poets, Walter tells a lively story about the economic wipe-out of Matthew Prior and his family.  Set during the recent financial crisis, Matt is in desperate straits when a series of bad individual choices collide with a worse economy. At the end of his rope financially and emotionally, Matt heads to a 7-11 late one night to buy milk and stumbles into an opportunity to use the last of his cash to get into the business of selling marijuana. An opportunity he grabs.

Deciding to deal his way out of economic misery may prove to be yet another dubious decision by Matt.  But what is wonderful about Jess Walter's writing is that he does not make his characters look foolish, even when events seem absurd. Instead, this heartfelt story is funny, knowing and truthful.

The protagonist, Matt Prior, is a financial reporter.  Matt left his newspaper to start a web site combining poetry and economic advice.  Not surprisingly, that project didn't pan out.  He returned to the paper but was subsequently laid-off as the newspaper itself was failing economically.

Unemployed and with his wife only able to find part-time work, income into the Prior household is strained while the demands for cash rage on:  Mortgage payment, car payment, credit card payments, private school tuition for the Prior's two children, and more.  Matt's father, who has dementia, and is living with Matt and his family.  And thus the reader meets Matt Prior, a stressed-out, desperate guy in his 40s, financially at the edge of the abyss - a situation he is hiding from his wife - emotionally fried, and ready to deal.   

In the hands of a different author, this story of a family's financial tsunami could be either hackneyed or unbearable.  But Jess Walter works amazing magic, crafting this book in a wonderful style that I can only describe as bright and clear.  The Financial Lives of the Poets is about a desperate situation, but it is a pleasure to read.  

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