Sunday, September 04, 2011

book review: The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter


"And in my fraying head there plays a new medley of war and instability, financial collapse and bad schools; foreclosure, eviction; cynicism, climate crisis; 7/11 - and the melody switches to my personal theme song (Concerto of Failure and Regret in E Minor) as life bleeds out from my feet and puddles in the hallway..."


When the recession was in full swing books started to come out that were clearly inspired by the sense of doom that was permeating the Western world. With redundancies, house prices collapsing and repossessions all daily news the response from some writers, particularly in the US, was to pen novels that addressed that situation.

Then We Came to The End was one of the first I read that described a working world in an advertising agency collapsing in on itself and this book has a similar starting point with Matt Prior about to lose his home. The book tells his story and his oddbeat response to impending doom in a way that is clearly meant to be funny. It doesn't always pull that off because there are perhaps some problems trying to make the hero some sort of likable anti-hero as Prior looks to solve his problems by selling drugs.

His move into dealing cannabis starts in a mad moment when he pops out not just to get milk but to get some air to escape from the home he is losing and the wife he is lying to. After meeting some drug dealers and being dubbed 'slippers' because of his attire that evening he starts to see real possibilities to save his home and get things back on track.

But he becomes sidetracked by the idea that his wife is having an affair with an old college flame and spends too much time picking over the bones of his past. The idea of offering financial advice in the form of poetry might have failed by Prior doesn't seem to have any real alternative plan.

He manages to sell drugs to some of the very same people who have been part of his collapsing world from ex-colleagues to those that are involved with squeezing him with the credit crunch. He even ends up in the bizarre situation of managing to convince the dealers that he might be a suitable person to buy and run the operation.

But of course morality creeps in and although this might not be the happy ending we are all looking for it does indicate that the credit crunch can be something to look to get laughter out of. In its way that was the main problem for me with the book. It didn't make me laugh as much as it probably should and I never found the idea of selling drugs as 'crazy' as it was probably meant to be.

The other danger of course is that a novel so clearly identified with the credit crunch is one tied to a specific moment in history and could find a readership drifting away from wanting to find laughter in a black time to one that is simply happy to move on and forget all about it.

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