Friday, October 15, 2010

The Financial Lives of the Poets


Jess Walter. Harper. 2009. 304 pp.

(originally published 10/10/10 in the Manhattan Mercury)

In the great Modern tradition, Jess Walter presents at the heart of his novel not a hero but an anti-hero, a J. Alfred Prufrock character – middleaged, educated to the point of pretension, pigeon-holed and indecisive – a protagonist who is his own antagonist. However, like with Prufrock, these flaws do not make us dislike Matthew Prior. On the contrary, they fill us with a great affection, perhaps even a great pity for Matt. The plot of the novel, excepting the ending, which I won’t get into here, is essentially a story

of entropy. Walter introduces Matt not on the day he leaves the local newspaper to start an illconceived website specializing in free-verse poetry about the stock market, poetfolio.com, nor when that particular venture fails, when he crawls back to the paper, nor when he is finally fired; the novel doesn’t even open on a small but symbolic moment: discovering his wife Lisa’s infidelity on Facebook, perhaps, or opening the foreclosure notice. No, we meet Matt in an unlikely place: 7/11 at 2 a.m., contemplating the original cost of his car versus how much he still owes on it (two commensurate figures) and getting stoned with two twentysomethings he’s just met, Jamie and Skeet. So in medias res we being, not at the outset of conflict but in the thick of it. "This is what it means to come apart," our narrator tells us. "Not gently unraveling, but blowing out, a tire on the freeway."

One of the most remarkable aspects of this book is that literally every part of the protagonist's life is marching seemingly in tandem toward complete dissolution, and yet clarity of situation is never compromised. With Skeet and Jamie, he stands in a fetid apartment littered with pizza crusts; at home he doesn't sleep because he simply can't bring himself to share a bed with his unfaithful wife; when he should be working, he's reminded again and again that there's nothing in this world for him to do: "Four years earlier we had complained about too many ads in the paper (less room for our brilliance) and competed for designer beats (cultural trends reporter); now we sighed with relief when the slender paper had any ads at all and eagerly accepted pay cuts and broad, hyphenated jobs created by the loss of our colleges (courtscops-schools...)."

More tragic than this fiscal crisis is the crisis in Matt's marriage, a crisis that weighs on him at practically all points in the story. His unemployment would not be nearly as devastating if her new beau, Chuck, didn't own his own lumber business or if she didn't love the house (he's about to lose) so much. "After each bad decision, after each failure we quietly logged our blame, our petty resentments; we constructed a case against the other that we never prosecuted,” Matt explains, and our only hope is that they truly never prosecute it.

The weight of these conflicts, internal and external, are bearable because Walter writes them with such a keen sense of humor, such an eye for absurdity. From the lawyer/drug dealer – “A prospectus? What kind of drug dealers have a prospectus?” – to the industrious squirrel who’s also struggling, “doing a little last gathering for his chestnut 401K,” Walter keeps us laughing and the true gravity of these failures he keeps at bay.

If I had to summarize “The Financial Lives of the Poets” in one word, it would be “convergence," because this is the essential nature of the characters here, characters who are constantly conflating incompatible elements (poetry and stock tips, drug dealing and legal contracts, their son Franklin's actions both diffident and at times violent) for the absurd aims of money, protection, love. In this respect, at the character-level if not the plot, Walter is an utter realist, refusing the flat character at every turn, and because these conflicts are character-driven we buy their synchronization and flip the pages still faster.

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