‘Financial Lives of the Poets’: Bumbling all the way to the poor house

Posted in book reviews, books, journalism trends by Diane on September 28, 2009

financialpoets“The Financial Lives of the Poets” is avert-your-eyes funny: I kept putting it down, only to pick it right back up. Jess Walter spins comic discomfort out of his hero’s harebrained schemes the way Larry David does on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”: You know nothing good can come of his actions, and you’re right.

But you still want to see how it all turns out.

Matt Prior, a business reporter sorely lacking financial judgment, is behind the eight ball when “The Financial Lives of the Poets” begins: Laid off from his newspaper job, he’s about to lose his house, and, he suspects, his marriage. Not helping: the fact he gambled the family’s money on a crazy website marrying poetry and finance a few years earlier, or his wife Lisa’s eBay shopping spree. Other added pressures: His senile Dad is staying with them after losing his own nest egg to a stripper; the kids are in a private school the family can no longer pretend to afford.

So what does Matt do? Fall into a money making scheme straight out of “Weeds.” There’s a riotous mix of characters – evil bosses, fellow journos struggling to hold onto their jobs, and hapless drug dealers – that liven up the proceedings as Matt races against the clock, obsessively monitoring his wife’s online flirtations with a former boyfriend as he bumbles along.

Walter, a former newspaperman himself, isn’t interested in creating a sob story about our country’s financial predicament or flailing newspaper biz. Nor does he wag his fingers a la Michael Moore. The bosses and bankers are evil, but Matt and his cohort aren’t helping themselves with their foolhardy behavior.

Eventually the jig is up, but that doesn’t end the comic indignities for our beleaguered hero, who tries to make the best of an increasingly bad situation, but bungles his attempts at revenge. There’s no happily ever after — Matt’s not nearly as fortunate as the New York Times business reporter that managed to keep his job, house and write a book about his financial mismanagement – but there is redemption and a calm after the manic storm.

This is no mean feat. Walter managed to create a topical comedy about the financial apocalypse that also speaks to the folly about living above one’s means.

“The Financial Lives of the Poets” may hit painfully close to home for journalists – hard not to wince when the can-do businessman offers Matt 15, not 50, thousand to run a newspaper devoted to positive developments – but even Earl means well. And the former boyfriend? He’s not so evil either.

But the finance website in verse? Still a bad idea.


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