'The Financial Lives of the Poets': Ode to an economic meltdown
Spokane author Jess Walter's "The Financial Lives of the Poets" is a darkly funny portrait of a laid-off journalist confronting catastrophic financial collapse. Walter reads next week at several Western Washington locations.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of "The Financial Lives of the Poets" will read at these area locations:
• 7 p.m. Tuesday at Village Books, 1200 11th St., Bellingham; free (360-671-2626; www.villagebooks.com).
• 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).
• Noon Thursday at Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry St., Seattle; free (206-587-5737; www.seattlemystery.com).
Matt Prior, who narrates Jess Walter's new novel, is an Everyman for our parlous times. He's smart, 40-something, slightly panicky and in deep doo-doo. As such, he's the perfect mouthpiece for Walter's pitch-black satirical riffs on how we live today in "The Financial Lives of the Poets" (Harper, 304 pp., $25.99).
Prior quit his journalism job to start blogging on a subject unlikely even for the blogosphere: financial information in the form of poetry. This venture, surprisingly, was not a success, and he's rapidly approaching meltdown.
Prior's savings are sliding, thanks to a useless financial adviser. When Prior goes to visit this adviser, it doesn't go well:
"The meeting is as predictable as coffin shopping ... (his advice is) something like taking a car to a mechanic, only to hear this: I hope you have good walking shoes ... his mouth is car-ported by a black mustache, an effective tool for delivering bad news."
His father has dementia. His wife, Lisa, spends hours on the computer, cyber-flirting with an old flame. His cherished sons aren't much trouble yet, but he's waiting.
So it's an understandable grasping at straws when, after years of abstinence, Prior impulsively smokes a joint with some goofy, brain-dead stoners outside a 7-Eleven. He then has a stunning revelation: Wow, these kids today have some killer weed! Next thing he knows, our man's a dealer, though not making enough to stay solvent. His yuppie customers, Prior reflects, buy dope with a sort of imagined nostalgia for the deliciously sinful days of bootleg hooch.
In time, Prior uses his druggie connections to wreak revenge on those who have wronged him. (They include that financial adviser as well as Prior's ex-editor — some of the author's sharpest jabs target the current state of journalism). This all works nicely for the fledgling drug lord — until his house of cards starts collapsing.
Spokane resident Walter's bittersweet tale is the latest example of his affinity for (and fluency with) difficult and often unsettling topics. Cases in point: his unclassifiable novels "Citizen Vince" and "The Zero." In the former, Vince, a small-time criminal in the Witness Protection Program, discovers that his new, nonfelon status lets him vote. He's shocked when this reveals a latent but passionate interest in civic duty, and the resulting story speaks as authoritatively about intangibles like hope and redemption as it does about con games and high-stakes poker. "The Zero," a National Book Award finalist, was a brilliant, shape-shifting "novel of September 12. " In the wake of a devastating terrorist attack, a big-city cop finds himself with a self-inflicted gunshot head wound, catastrophic memory loss and frequent blackouts, as a mixture of cynical commerce and frenzied patriotism grips the nation.
Like these novels, "The Financial Lives of the Poets" uses some conventions of the thriller genre to make its points. It's lighter in tone than the earlier books, however — a kind of sunny hopefulness shines through the disasters. This tone reflects Walter's big-hearted way with characters — no matter how bleak things get, everyone here tends to have at least a bit of redeeming virtue. Even the old flame Lisa is flirting with, it turns out, is a pretty decent guy.
Seattle writer Adam Woog's column on crime fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.
Information in this article, originally published Oct. 23, 2009, was corrected Oct. 26, 2009. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated author Jess Walter's name and narrator Matt Prior's name.
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