The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter

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The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A very amusing and droll look at an engaging hero stuck with few opportunities in a post-credit crunch world.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: August 2010
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0141049137

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There is a certain type of modern fiction I just cannot get along with. It's a narrative that features a concentration on a main character that goes through his plot with unhappiness, making wrong decisions perhaps, getting crapped on by life, and discussing his woes with the reader. I get to the end and think nothing of it, until I read the blurb, where I find the book was supposed to be hilariously funny, the character an insincere cypher for our lives and times, and the whole thing an ironic masterpiece - I should have been disbelieving, disagreeing and dis-everything else with the hapless hero. I hate such books - I always only see the sincerity in the narrative, and never the comedy. Thankfully, such is never the case with this book.

It's a pity this paperback is not due to hit British shelves until August 2010, as it so exemplifies the recent mood, and I don't want the bankruptcy of modern life to still be happening months from when I write this. Matt, a journalist and family man, is definitely getting crapped on by his life. Making wrong decisions in his career, he is now entering a midlife crisis (belatedly, perhaps - he won't see 45 again) stone cold broke. He's paid off nothing on his car, now worth half what he owes to keep it, he's been remortgaged to the hilt, the credit cards are maxed out, his pension scheme empty. Foreclosure is a week away, which will more than likely split him and his slightly materialistic wife up - if her late-night flirtations with an old flame do not do so first. Matt is about to enter a late night 7/11 convenience store for an expensive emergency bottle of milk, and is about to emerge as Slippers, with a new and surprising career.

And when you consider his last career decision was to invent a website for business advice - but all written in doggerel and blank verse - you hope better for him this time. Even though this decision is based on him interacting with the hoodied punks in the store, who reintroduce Matt to the cannabis he stopped thinking about a generation ago. Yes, straight-laced Matt Prior, soccer dad, one step and one week away from the gutter, is going to deal drugs to any straight-laced but nostalgic cohorts he can find.

Such is the spirit of the book one almost feels like joining him. Heard of sticking it to the man? Try selling the man a line instead and see how that works. We're certainly with him all the way in a different sense with this book, as it's clearly all told from his first person narrative. He's a very good writer - until he tries to rap his way through proceedings, when he's brilliantly bad - as he gives us his interior mindset alongside a very clear and lucid outlook showing us what he's seeing in his miserable existence.

The sense of humour here is of prime importance, and prime quality. His lusting after his kid's thong-wearing teacher, his initial forays into dealing with his contacts (and their contracts), and his time spent on the automated system of whichever company last bought his bad debts - all are perfectly realised. We see him and pity him, and because this is so fresh and immediate in concerns and delivery we know there are thousands of men just like him.

There is a tiny aspect in which this book is principally American - I had to ask a trans-Atlantic friend quite what chipped beef was - but this is universally enjoyable. Matt is an Everyman, and however sincere you might find his lot, regarding his new career, his lack of funds, or the fact his wife seems to prefer someone called Chuck Stain (although he doesn't spell his surname that way!), you will sincerely laugh along with him as well as at him.

A read like this almost makes the entire credit crunch worthwhile. I don't know of any fiction it has inspired to touch this.

I must thank Viking's kind people for my review copy.

This is a book for the female reader, too, however well evoked the male protagonist is. I don't see a chick-lit read such as Hedge Fund Wives by Tatiana Boncompagni to cross genres, however great that is at covering similar ground. For the truth behind the fiction here we recommend The Fall of the House of Credit by Alistair Milne.

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