The Financial Lives of the Poets

olive1The Short Version: Matt Prior is in trouble.  He’s broke, unemployed, about a week away from losing his house, his wife is (probably) having an affair, his senile father is living with the family, and – oh yeah – it’s the early aftermath of the financial crisis.  So what’s a guy to do?  Start selling pot, of course.

The Review: It’s hard to really tackle the punctured American Dream in writing.  You can do the Franzen thing, but he’s kind of got that sewn up.  The nihilism of Ellis & co. has long become passé.  And we’ve even seen versions of this very story before (or since): Weeds and Breaking Bad garnered great acclaim for many years, telling the story of ordinary suburbanites turned drug-dealing masterminds.
Except, wait, hang on – Matt Prior is no mastermind.  And therein lies the success of this novel: it’s the maybe the most accurate farce I’ve read about Americans in the early days of the 21st Century.

I mean, the hubris of a guy to leave his decent newspaper job to found a website where he could dispense financial advice via poetry?? Jesus Christ, is the dumbest sounding start-up imaginable – and yet there are worse things out there in our real world. Walter delivers something that hits just the note of ridiculous that allows the reader to scoff… but also, it doesn’t beggar belief.  We laugh at the ridiculousness but also perhaps with a tinge of nervousness at the “oh my god, what if…” of it all.  And that’s about where the book lands overall, really: “oh my god, what if…”

Because it could happen to any of us.  Hell, it did happen to a whole lot of us: a belief in the invincibility of the markets (housing, tech, media, whatever), predatory lending and over-aggressive salespeople, righteous indignance at the very idea that we (Americans) could be headed towards anything but an even brighter future.  And wouldn’t you, too, do anything to try to hang on to the life that you’d spent, well, your whole life building?  The big house, the private school, the nice cars… if you can save it, wouldn’t you?  Even if, at the end of the day, you don’t really need all of that to survive?

And the humor, of course, comes from Matt’s attempts to try and save it – bumblingly, of course (which is the same way he’s nearly lost all of it).  The opening scene, where he’s at a 7/11 attempting to buy milk and ends up falling in with these young stoners, sets a tone that remains throughout the novel: some self-deprecation, some absurdism, a dash of straight-up farce.  The whole thing ends up feeling, in the same way that Jonathan Tropper’s novels do, like a pre-novelization of a film.  But this is not a bad thing!  And it’s also an exaggeration, to some extent, at least with this book – there’s too much poetry.
Speaking of, that’s one of the stranger tangents that the book delves into: poetry.  Matt, having little to no credentials on the subject other than being what he himself believes to be a mediocre poet, still spins out several quatrains, villanelles, haikus, and other rhymes (or unrhymes!) throughout the novel.  And it’s that, that delusion (because Walter actually does a decent job, even though the poems are ridiculous – you get the sense that they’re purposefully not-great, which is the harder trick) that drives this book: the belief in our own exceptionalism.  That each of us is exceptional.  Except that’d mean that nobody is exceptional, you know?

As we watch Matt deal with the various realizations of the unexceptional times, there is also the loose weed-dealing plot.  It almost feels as though Walter himself might’ve been watching Weeds when he was mulling the plot of this book, although that show truly elevated the weed-dealing plot into true farce at times (before the show itself became the bad kind of farce) while Walter’s plot stays pretty well-grounded.  You can pretty much predict the things that are going to happen to Matt (although sometimes there are fun twists, like Dave the Drug Dealer Lawyer) because they are exactly what would happen if someone like Matt attempted to do something like this.  That predictability, though, plays to Walter’s favor and it allows the reader to just enjoy the goofiness without bracing for anything too over the top coming down the line.

Rating: 4 out of 5.  You know, I enjoyed this in a very simple way.  I sometimes felt like it could’ve been tightened just a smidge (lots of repetition of phrases and mini-recaps that felt unnecessary, although they may’ve just been a way to show how Matt’s sleep-deprived stoner mind was working) but Walter pulls off a really smart critique of the world we’ve made for ourselves while never seeming preachy.  Instead, it’s a fun and silly farce with goofy characters and an aw-shucks ending.  And with the world facing some still-very-dark days, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be reminded that we’re none of us as great as we might think we are – but that the Dream is to strive, not to have.
(PS daaaaaamn girl, that Olive Edition cover is just gorgeous.  As are they all.  Harper Perennial, you slay me.)
(PPS alright so I edited the review post-posting a bit, just to more accurately phrase some things… I’m the one who needs an editor, yeesh)

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