Friday 13 August 2010

'What kind of man was I?'

The Financial Lives of The Poets 
by Jess Walter

Nick Hornby's name is affixed to the cover of this comic novel with a nice quote ("It made me laugh more than any other book this year") but Jess Walter will be thankful to Hornby for more than just a nice cover quote. Apparently after reading this book on a trip to the States Hornby forced a copy into the hands of Penguin's head honcho and insisted that they publish it in the UK. His persistence has brought a wonderfully funny book to these shores, a novel about one man's unique way of dealing with economic crisis and a hilarious antidote to the general malaise that permeates 'the current financial climate' and writer's very serious responses to it.

We meet the novel's hero, Matthew Prior, already floundering in America's recent economic meltdown having quit his job as a financial journalist to set up a website, poetfolio.com, offering financial news and advice...in blank verse. How that ever sounded like a good idea only he knows but with their mortgage now extended way over the actual value of the house and financial demands coming from all quarters he is unemployed, on the brink of bankruptcy, losing his house and maybe even his marriage too. His wife has been spending suspiciously large amounts of time on the computer and through a bit of snooping Prior discovers online chats with a high-school sweetheart. Walter has a great lightness and in a hilarious opening chapter a simple evening trip to the store to pick up milk for the kid's cereal ('it's like nine dollars a gallon') leads to a meeting with two stoners, Skeet and Jamie, Matthew's first hit on a joint for many years (I want to make sure they haven't done anything new to the pot. Oh, but they have!'), an impromptu party and a night of no sleep. Having scored some of this high quality weed and finding it easy to pass on to a colleague with a healthy profit, the financial journalist wakes up to the economics of drug selling (something familiar to anyone who's watched the cult TV series Breaking Bad) and sees a way out of his financial troubles, and hopefully a way to lead his family back onto the tracks. All strictly within limits of course.

"I'm only going to do this for a few months, just long enough to make some house payments and keep my kids in Catholic school. Then I'll quit."
"Wait," Ike lowers his head. "You're selling pot to pay for Catholic school? Drugs for private school? That's so Iran-Contra."

This is a comic novel though so Prior is hilariously ill-suited to the task and successive nights without sleep lead to increasing errors of judgement. As he gets himself more involved with his new spliff scheme he also begins to close in on the rival for his wife's affections, and look after two boys and his ageing father. This last aspect is the one that allows Walter to add some pathos to his tale, Prior's father having lost house, savings and all after a dalliance with a young stripper, but thankfully spared the pain of regret thanks to his creeping dementia. Carrying around his trusty remote control at all times, ever ready for the moment when The Rockford Files should be on, he cuts a sad figure totally unaware of his own failings even as his son flails around trying to atone for his own and getting himself in deeper and deeper as a result.

 The book contains several examples of Prior's poetic musings, all very tongue in cheek, and several examples of his financial prowess.

I even had a popular investing column for a couple of years, although, in the interests of full disclosure, this was during the 1990's, when you could've trained a puppy on the newspaper stock section and made twenty percent a year investing where his turds fell.

Walter manages to land some pretty hefty satirical blows along the way and pinpoint some very painful truths about our modern life and attitudes to money, work, home and family life. What it really delivers though is laugh after laugh and the fact that it adds something a little heart warming along the way all helps to make for a very satisfying read, perfect for what remains of the holidays.


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