Written by on June 17, 2013

The financial lives of the poets, by Jess Walter

I’m working my way backwards through Jess Walter’s fiction, after reading and loving his Beautiful Ruins last fall. Ruins jumped from Italy to Edinburgh to Hollywood, from the 60s to the present. This earlier novel is solidly American in setting and themes, but no less engrossing. The main character, Matt Prior, has given up his day job as a reporter to pursue a venture that sounds like a joke: a financial journalism website composed entirely in blank verse. Unfortunately for Matt, his wife, their two sons, and their mortgage (with its upcoming balloon payment), this works about as well as it sounds like it would. Fortunately for us, it gives Walter license to include these bits of poetry at the beginnings of many chapters. Here, he sets the scene — a 7-11 late at night — at the beginning of the book:

imagesHere they are again — the bent boys, baked
and buzzed boys, wasted, red-eyed, dry-mouth
high boys, coursing narrow bright aisles
hunting food as fried as they are, twitchy
hands wadding bills they spill
on the counter, so pleased and so
proud, as if they’re the very
inventors of stoned —

But this isn’t a book of blank verse; it’s one of this funniest suburban nightmare novels I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Once the website fizzles, Matt goes back to the newspaper, only to get laid off a few months later. Now he suspects his wife is having an affair, his dementia-addled dad is living with them (after losing his life savings to a twenty-something stripper, of which he remembers nothing), he’s within days of losing the house (which he hasn’t told his wife), and his kids may have to leave their private school and attend what Matt thinks of as Alcatraz Elementary, where he fears the most crucial thing they’ll learn will be how to make a plastic spork into a shiv. So when the stoned boys in 7-11 offer him a hit of their killer weed, he starts thinking of a quick entrepreneurial fix to all his problems.

Complications ensue, to put it mildly.

author photo: Hannah Assouline

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