"Do you think there’ll be another 7/11?” an elderly, dying woman asks her son. She means 9/11, but he doesn’t correct her. And while it doesn’t seem all that funny out of context, in Jess Walter’s novel, “The Financial Lives of Poets,” it’s a scream.
Reviewing a fictional work in a business book column might seem odd, but a read like this one is too timely to pass up. It might just provide the kind of advice we need while we ride out our economy’s choppy sea. Face it. We are just so cynical these days – with good reason, too. Our homes are in foreclosure, Mom’s healthcare is going up (if it isn’t cancelled), and the cost of good, old apple pie is increasingly out of reach. In other words, all the things we had faith in are on the line. For Matt Prior, the novel’s protagonist, losing faith in favor of cynicism is particularly acute. Not only has he lost his job, but he’s losing his house, and probably most certainly, his wife, too. “You are severely hemorrhaging here,” his financial advisor tells him. This is the same guy who tried to sell him an alleged “safe bet” – Mexican shipping bonds – just the year before. Deeply in debt, with too few options, Matt is just a bit more than angry. How does anyone handle such a situation? Not the way Matt does. And that’s just the point. Cynical as we are in these times, the feel good story – the saccharin puff of air – just doesn’t do it any more. You can only watch Avatar so many times.
Explaining exactly what Matt does do may be too much of a spoiler. But it involves good cops and bad cops, a lumber fort he’s always wanted to build for his kids, not enough sleep, a series of 7/11s (there’s a pattern here), lots of marijuana, and being really angry with dishonest real estate dealers. “I’d love to go back to a 2004 cocktail party and beat those sure-sound- ing real estate idiot optimists to death with a For Sale Sign,” he muses.
I’d take a good whack at myself too…My disappointment is not that my own home has lost half it’s value. What disappointments me is me – that I fell for their propaganda when I knew better…The poets were supposed to remind us of this.
The title of the book comes from a hare-brained scheme; Matt takes a hiatus from his reporter job to create a financial website dispensing economic wisdom and poetry. Of course it doesn’t succeed, but that’s not quite the point. He returns to his job only to get laid off within a few months. The idea is that we need both economic savvy and a sense of our place in the world in order to survive. “The Financial Lives of Poets” is no sappy tale. It looks our current situation right in the eye, then turns our heads and forces us to stare at it too. It manages to be wickedly funny at the same time.
How does it end? No spoiler here. Matt realizes that the deep mess he’s in is his fault, but also everyone’s fault. Who knew the economy would go bust? On the other hand, Matt and his family had banked on the American pipe dream that housing prices only go up, jobs are easy to find, and the Cubs will someday win the pennant. What is wonderful about Jess Walter’s financial advice is that it comes with a healthy dose of poetry. Matt finally redeems himself. He gets his family back – but not the house. Like an addict not fully cured, he misses all the stuff of those other times. Let’s be real. The TVs, the Maxima, the buying more than you really need. In the end, though, he understands that despite all the material loss, he really has gained. What matters most in life, remains. It’s just the kind of financial advice we need. FBN