four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
44-Jan-Feb-2010
By: 
Jess Walter
user_rating: 
0

A-The Financial Lives of the PoetsJournalist Jess Walter's most recent work of fiction, The Zero (2006), was a National Book Award nominee and explored the aftershocks of 9/11. The Financial Lives of the Poets is his fifth novel.

The Story: Things aren't going so well for Matt Prior, a financial reporter for a struggling newspaper. He quit his job to launch a Web site that would supply monetary advice in verse--poetfolio.com--and lost his life savings when it flopped. Now, his unhappy wife is maxing out their credit cards and carrying on long, hushed conversations with an old boyfriend, and the bank has notified him that he has six days to foreclosure. Deeply in debt, Matt cannot see a way out until a chance encounter during a midnight 7-Eleven run convinces the devoted husband and father that a life of crime just might keep his family together.
Harper. 290 pages. $25.99. ISBN: 9780061916045

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Granted, you may spend a lot of your time wanting to shout things at the book (things like: ‘DON'T DO THAT!' and ‘Can't you just once try TALKING to your wife??'), but for every such outburst you are also guaranteed at least a handful of dry chuckles and several out-loud hoots. ... The narrative itself, which at moments seems to teeter dangerously on the edge of becoming a sort of adolescent Ice Follies, actually turns out to be a very smart meditation on what's gone wrong with both the US economy and those of us who are expected to keep it running." Marjorie Kehe

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"[Matt] is, in all, a decent man caught up in what so many of us are caught up in, and even though we cluck our tongues and shake our heads at each dumb choice Matt makes, we are still rooting for him as he slowly starts the climb back. Jess Walter is a brilliant writer, one of the freshest new voices in American literature." Bill Marvel

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"Well-written novels never need to be timely to succeed, but in this cautionary tale of fiscal follies and collapse Walter delivers a comic and gut-wrenching fable for these impecunious times. ... The author sympathizes with this character, though, and sees an opportunity in these tumultuous times for us all to reflect on our responsibilities, both personal and professional, and to learn to accept our losses and move on." Zac Gall

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Mixing financial advice with poetry is a terrible idea. But combining the elements of tragedy with a sitcom sensibility is a good one. And it's what Jess Walter continues to do best." Janet Maslin

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Walter, a former journalist, has sharp reportorial instincts and brings us right into the maw of current events without ever seeming like he's writing an op-ed instead of a novel. ... Though the story is peppered with all sorts of giddy, hyper-current references--Facebook, Wikipedia, not to mention the only poem to mention Costco and NPR in the same stanza--it also has heart and heft." Lisa Zeidner

Critical Summary

Walter's wildly funny, heartrending novel is a clever meditation on the American Dream gone horribly wrong. Readers will be rooting for Matt, "a likable everyman" (Christian Science Monitor), even as he commits one painful error after another. Walter's writing crackles with energy, and though he seems to come close to treating some serious topics (drug use, infidelity, mental illness, and bankruptcy) superficially, his affection for his characters and his shrewd assessment of the Priors' financial and familial collapse circumvent that danger. His free-verse poetry, however, interspersed within the narrative, received mixed reviews. Praised as one of today's best new voices, Walter has penned a scathing indictment of contemporary America.