Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Financial Lives of Poets by Jess Walter

The Financial Lives of Poets
by Jess Walter

If you aren’t already familiar with Jess Water, may I suggest that you rectify this gap in your reading repertoire immediately? Really how many times do I have to tell you? [Stern Parental Face] [Wait, that won’t work.] [Enthusiastic This-Sandwich-Changed-My-Life-Face] [Better?]

Insisting aside, I must say that I came late to the Jess Walter party. Despite being a Spokane resident for seven years and having heard plenty about him, up until last November, I’d only read his funny columns in Out There Monthly. And unlike my apathy towards Gonzaga basketball or Chiefs hockey, I felt rather guilty about it. “I’ll get his books at the library sometime,” I said, though being a local author, his books were always checked-out. When he and Sherman Alexie were scheduled to do a reading together coinciding with the releases of The Financial Lives of Poets and War Dances, I knew I had to cough up the $15 already and started with a paperback of Citizen Vince. So rarely do I have a hardcover budget.

That in mind, I didn’t get a chance to read The Financial Lives of Poets until its paperback release*. Centered around our recent economic crises, we meet Matt Prior, an ex-reporter who lost all his money starting a poetry-themed financial website. He has six days to spare his house from foreclosure, his wife is flirting with her high school boyfriend, and he can’t sleep. In the middle of the night, he befriends two typical white kid stoners at the 7-Eleven. After tagging along with them and getting high for the first time in decades, Matt decides that maybe he can use his desperate insanity to fix his life.

And this is where the unlikeliest peace comes, and I smile. Because as fucked as the world is, as grim as the future surely seems to be, as grim as it revealed itself to be for my mother as she lay dying of the tumor that kills us all, there is a truth I cannot deny, a thing no creditor can take; even as my doomed boys stir in the cold unknowing of predawn sleep, even as the very life leaches out of me, soaks into the berber, and into the cracks of my arid grave, I must grudgingly admit —

— that was one great goddamn burrito.

Yes, it’s a funny novel about life’s collapse, about how expectations and reality do not often meet. It is about denial and digging the bomb shelter deeper and deeper, until the whole thing caves in with the weight of the Earth. It’s about what happens when we realize we’ve screwed ourselves over and think, Well, what’s a little more risk going to hurt?

Walter never names the city in this novel, and though it’s likely supposed to stand for any city across America, it feels undeniably like Spokane. Matt Prior talks about his local newspaper layoffs, and his editor M— “he whose name cannot be typed without befouling a keyboard.” It very much resembled the layoffs at The Spokesman-Review. Former Editor Steve Smith may have not had a “double chin-strap beard” (that I know of), but he was known to wear a “40s-movie fedora and [get] weepy whenever he reflected back on the fourteen months he spent as a libelous reporter waterboarding the English language.” He also uses the god awful verb “newspapering.”

Like M— and the unnamed newspaper, the Spokesman-Review also had failed forays into television and radio, and each time, more layoffs ensued. The content shrunk. The pages became narrower. Bureaus in the Spokane Valley and North Idaho were entirely closed, save for some patronizing weekly “Voice” sections. Like Matt, Walter was once a reporter and now “the once plucky staff — my old colleagues and friends — now resembles the nervous crew in one of the Alien movies.” (Also, I direct you to this comment within the link above.)

Meanwhile, M— continued to promote his sycophants and build himself the Taj Mahal of offices, even as he oversaw round after round of layoffs. Like some medieval doctor, this self-aggrandizing bully claimed he was saving the paper every time he bled it, and throughout the long decline, continued to waste a reporter’s fill salary each year flying to journalism conferences where he could bloviate alongside other Saddams about the future of newspapers.

Talking heads, newspaper editors and financial advisors may blather on all they want about the “old days” and the future, but they helped create the problem. The carnage lies in all the people who either willingly joined them or had no other choice, blindly hoping it would all work out in the end. Everything in The Financial Lives of Poets centers around that ride: Matt getting talked into the shady refinancing of their house, his wife’s period of compulsive spending, his father’s initial denial of declining mental health, and on and on. It’s everything we see in the news; it’s truth hidden within humor. If we didn’t laugh, we’d cry, and sometimes, we do both.

In the “P.S.” section of the paperback edition, Walter sums up the motivations behind writing this book:

I wrote quickly, because all of this seemed to be happening all around me and it seemed like an opportunity to do something novelists don’t always get to do. [...]

And I thought: what if instead of re-creating it later I just stick my head out the window and describe what I see as we go barreling off the road?

Yes, writers pilfer from their own lives all the time, and I read more into the details since I used to live in Spokane, but it’s got to feel awfully true to anyone around the country. Friends of mine aren’t the only reporters laid off and I’m not the only one who is having trouble trying to sell a house right now. The point is, Walter does an excellent job of avoiding exaggeration. We’ve met these people. We are these people.

Aside from the real life comparisons, the writing itself is extraordinary. I love that Matt’s inner thoughts are punctuated by cursing, checking out his baristas and his son’s teacher, followed by stream-of-conscious slips into poetry. I love that he recognizes his occasional immaturity and just succumbs to it anyway.

And then it comes to me: Chuck’s bald spot is roughly the size and shape of a fried wonton. “I don’t suppose there’s any good Chinese food around here?”

“Hmm?” Then, still bent over, reading my printout for the treeless tree fort, Chuck tells me the name of a place nearby.

“They have wontons?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “Probably.”

I have, I should point out, a luscious head of hair. Cut short now, up over my ears, my hair is nonetheless thick and healthy and free of dumpling-shaped islands of skin. The wonton is turning, my friend, decaying Prince of Lumberland, balding boy-wonder of woodwork, male-pattern ninja of wife-thievery. I run my hand through my hair; it bristles like windblown wheat.

I know I go on and on about how writing should be honest, how I don’t want to be distracted by “Look at me! I’m writing!” but when a writer is so dead on, and once I recognize that skill, how can I not seek it out in other writing? And more importantly, good writing makes me want to get to work. I may never be a writer in the same talent bracket as Jess Walter, Michael Chabon or Aaron Sorkin, but they make me want to try. That’s all I really ask for in a book — entertain and motivate me. I want to be completely absorbed in your story, and after a sufficient punch in the heart, I want to get my own versions of those feelings onto the page. I want to care to the point of thinking, This is why I want to do this.

We all fall prey to complaining, consumerism and competition. There are people who bemoan eating anything but local, sustainable foods, but absolutely need to have the new iPhone. There are writers who gripe about the lack of attention [women/minorities/takeyrpick] get compared to the “canon,” yet readily admit they get squeamish telling people that they write. People claim to hate nepotism and special treatment, but love it when they know a guy working the door who will let them into the party. And I spend all this time talking about writing, rolling my eyes at insecure, pretentious blow-hards, yet have only written — count ‘em! — 1.5 pieces of fiction in the past six months.

And like Matt, like his dissatisfied wife, like his financial advisor, like the 7-11 stoners, like M—, we all make excuses for our behavior. Humans are of course imperfect, and occasionally we screw things up to the point of having to start completely anew, working with much, much less. The Financial Lives of Poets holds a mirror to all our misguided — though earnest — behavior, and therein lies its genius.

*Harper Perennial sent me this book. Since I’d wanted to buy it already, the arrival was good timing. Though I do feel a bit guilty about stiffing Jess Walter the royalties, I hope my compliments will suffice. No one may be directly paying me for my writing yet, but a lovely side effect to all this book reviewing is that I receive free reading material. Like always, I shall continue to be honest in my reviews.


This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

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