A satire about kin, and the financial crisis we’re in

By Alec Solomita
Globe Correspondent / December 13, 2009

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In all likelihood, the definitive book about the global financial meltdown is yet to come and will be written by, say, a Larry Summers or a Robert Samuelson, but the funniest is already available at your bookstore.

Jess Walter’s novel “The Financial Lives of the Poets’’ tells the tale of the unemployed, over-mortgaged, former journalist, fledgling poet, and failed entrepreneur Matt Prior. Free-falling through the financial crisis without a parachute, Prior is also contending with a possibly straying wife with a penchant for manic buying episodes, a father with dementia, and two little boys developing antisocial tendencies. And worse, he has mostly himself to blame for his economic predicament. He left his job as a business writer two years before to pursue an unlikely dream: “I know it sounds stupid in hindsight, and perhaps in foresight too, but my idea was that someone needed to start a website that gave financial news and advice . . . in verse.’’

Here, for instance, is a story titled “Airline Deal Proposed’’: “Buffeted by fuel costs soaring/ and with labor costs surging/ Delta and Northwest are exploring/ the possibility of merging.’’

Building his ill-conceived website - - “turned out to take longer and be more costly than we thought, and we found ourselves taking another line of credit on the house, going deeper in debt. Then came Lisa’s abnormal online shopping binge, and our credit cards rolled over on us a couple of times and the car payments lapsed and the ground began slipping away.’’

When we meet Prior buying milk after midnight at a 7-Eleven, he has “scrambled back to my old newspaper job, only to get laid off eight weeks ago.” He also needs to come up with an impossible sum within days to block foreclosure proceedings.

Unlike his business venture, the novel lifts off like a rocket as the late-night milk run turns out to be Prior’s rendezvous with destiny - in the form of “two dope smoking bangers in track suits.’’ Recounted in manic, supple, overheated prose, the tale of our previously law-abiding hero spins (plausibly, mind you) into a whole new world of gangsters, lurid lawyers, drug deals, dissembling, and revenge. And for the reader, Prior’s wild “lost weekend’’ becomes a found treasure. As the confused protagonist bounces among the personae of concerned father, fearful husband, and surprisingly ingenious drug dealer, the grateful reader ricochets between anxious empathy and helpless laughter.

Part “Get Smart,’’ part “Catch-22,’’ and part “Lunch Poems,’’ “The Financial Lives of the Poets’’ opens each chapter with verse that is always deft and often laugh-out-loud funny. Walter’s social commentary is spot on and refreshingly nonpartisan. In a Costco parking lot, Prior sees a matron bending over with some packages and he spots: “a thong, I swear to God, a thong,/ now me, I’m okay with the thong/ politically and aesthetically . . ./ My only question is:/ When did Moms start wearing them?/ I remember my mom’s underwear/ (Laundry was one of our chores: . . ./ My sister stood on one end,/ me on the other/ and we walked toward each other/ twice./ We folded these things/ like big American flags . . ./ careful not to let them/ brush the ground.)

Almost as humorous, as well as deeply affecting, is Prior’s fear of losing his wife, Lisa, who is connecting via Facebook to an old flame and gossips about it with a friend “encamp[ed] at the kitchen table over fishbowls of Merlot.’’ Prior manages to identify and track down his wife’s former boyfriend, Chuck, now a lumber salesman, and, in an excruciating series of scenes, wanders into the lumber warehouse pretending to shop for a tree fort for his boys. “And here is my lightning quick assessment of my enemy’s strengths, relative to mine: (1) Chuck is taller. (2) Chuck is . . . younger. . . . (3) Chuck really does have dreamy eyes. . . . (4) Chuck looks good in his Carhartt work pants and does not seem to have the middle-aged disappearing-ass issue I’ve been battling the last few years. . . . (5) Chuck is . . . heartily handsome. . . . (6) Chuck is employed.’’

Sadder than Prior’s anxiety over being cuckolded - and here is one of the few places where the comedy occasionally falters - is watching his frail, balding, sex-obsessed, live-in father succumb to dementia: “He can still be his old self for a minute, commenting on politics or sports and then, bang: he skids on the ice and his mind spins sideways. And I think he knows he’s spinning because he makes a little groaning sound and nods at the TV, and says, of the woman on-screen: ‘God, I wouldn’t mind planting my carrot in that garden.’ ’’

Walter is so good at presenting the joys and sorrows of the contemporary family that one sometimes wishes the book were a bit less of a wild, caustic comedy and a bit more of a domestic drama. But let’s not quibble. This vigorous, engaging novel is one of the sharpest satires to come along in years.

Alec Solomita is a fiction writer and critic living in Somerville.

By Jess Walter
Harper, 290 pp., $25.99

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