The Financial Lives of the Poets: A literary hit right where I live (Literally)

I never really got “The Great Gatsby.” I didn’t read it as part of a school assignment, so I missed out on, apparently, the meaning behind the meaning of a bitter obituary for the American Dream.

What I understand now (thanks to friends of mine who could not believe I thought the book was about the spoiled, annoying people it seemed to be about) is that it is a highly symbolic treatise about the excess of the Jazz Age, and the hollow exuberance of post-war euphoria. It captures (I am told) the cynicism of the New America selling its soul for a quick buck and a cheap thrill.

But what do I care about the 1920s? That was a half century before I was even born. What’s a book that sums up the ennui of an era I’m actually familiar with?

Enter “The Financial Lives of the Poets,” by Jess Walter. This book arrived in my mailbox one day from my friend Chuck who called it “lovely dark and deep,” and “an outlandish but true picture of now.”

“You among my friends might best find its pleasures,” he said a bit poetically himself. Boy, was he right, though. I found pleasure aplenty. Pain, too.

A Daily News quote on the cover calls “Poets” gasp-out loud funny, and I agree. Walter sees the funny clown beneath the Emmett Kelly grease paint, and he teases laughs out of the most casual of observations — unerringly, it seemed, while I had a mouthful of water to choke on. What I didn’t expect all the gasping I’d do from Walter’s dead-on skewering of modern middle-American life. My life.

The star of “Poets” is Matthew Prior, a beleaguered father and laid-off journalist with a ponderous mortgage and a failed start-up in his rear-view mirror and an existential malaise clouding up over the backyard of his midlife and … hold on. I need to mop my brow and pour myself a stiff drink.

The similarities to my life begin to diverge, thank God, as we see Matthew’s despair drive him to some unorthodox solutions to his financial woes, sparked by a chance meeting with a few young stoners in possession of some really stellar ganja. (My record with weed is brief, uninteresting and not the stuff of literary inspiration, which offered me some welcome distance from Matthew’s trajectory.)

First, let me say this about the writing: Walter should be fitted at once for a white, three-piece suit. You may recall from my recent Influence Map that Tom Wolfe is something of a muse of mine. So it is not lightly that I draw a line between the Great White Wolfe and this book. Walter has, like Wolfe, a journalist’s eye for detail and, like Wolfe, a poet’s ear for prose:

Ike was the music writer at the newspaper for years, and oddly enough, given that position, among the squarest people I know. Married. Three kids. Asthmatic and frail. He was probably the only other adult not getting high the last fifteen years. He’s recently been transferred and is covering politics and city government now. On a shrinking staff a music writer is an extravagance they can’t afford. I feel bad for Ike, who spent years developing that weird, specific music-writer vocabulary (the thunky wallop of the bass … the womb-like, plangent guitar …) only to find it doesn’t quite translate to covering politics (the state Senator’s speech “lumbered along like a fussy cover musician scatting a complex hook”).

This is just a flick of Walter’s wrist. The whole book reads with that bouncy style, even when delineating the sad decline of housing prices, economic indicators, and our feelings of self-worth that go with it all.

This mastery alone makes Walter new best friend. But then he really has to get inside my head. He places his characters square in the middle of our collective financial slump, with all the same anxieties regular schmoes like me feel every day. This excerpt made me close the book and step away:

I push the garbage into the alley and turn back toward my home —

My home …

God, this view is breathtaking. This is the view that sold us on the place. The homes on the front of our block sit on wide lots and I still lose my breath at this angle of my house, from deep in the backyard: a long, gently sloped hill leading to big majestic maple trees on either side of our angular, two-story 1917 Tudor, a streetlight on the corner, and the mist of late October rain bands the street with fog so that our big brick house glows in the soft light like a movie set of Old London. From back here, the money the stress, the lifetime of work it will take to pay for this place (I remember calculating the total we’d pay over thirty years and feeling sick) almost seems worth it. Up close, the clinker brick and uneven roof make our house look like it was drawn by the unsteady hand of a child, but from back here, if you squint, there is the faint line of a country manor. This is the house we fell in love with, Lisa and I — the house that has become, in every way, the third party in our marriage, the very sort of big drafty place we always saw each other in when we imagined our married adult lives.

If that uneasy feeling (the lifetime of work almost seems worth it), doesn’t describe two thirds of America, I’ll eat my closing documents. The thing is, I really have dropped off the garbage in the alley and turned around to see my house lit up at night, and though it was filled with happy children and a loving wife doing the things they do in cozy well-lit houses on autumn evenings, I could only see payment schedules and pay stubs. A scary dislocation, as my friend Chuck would call it.

This isn’t a maudlin book, though. Sure, times are grim, but the people in them can be funny and inspired instead. The observations that Walter makes, the flip asides, the inherent screwball adventure of a man who goes out for milk and ends up with a budding marijuana business — they are all roadside attractions on a fast-moving tale of modern toil, filled with despair, yes, but also redemption and recovery. And laughs.

Gatsby may still speak for somebody, but Walter’s financial poetry speaks for me.

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