October 2009

Seduced and betrayed by the American dream

By Jess Walter
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Matt Prior is not the sharpest tool in the shed. A business reporter, he left his job at a daily paper just as newspaper jobs were becoming scarce enough to seem worth keeping. Worse, he quit in order to start a website devoted to reporting the financial news as poetry. Not exactly a sure thing. Meanwhile, his adorable wife, Lisa, went on a shopping binge, and the combination of those two factors led the Priors to borrow repeatedly against their house. The website, it probably goes without saying, failed, and the family is now getting by on Lisa's pay as a secretary, although "getting by" is an exaggeration: what Matt knows, and Lisa doesn't, is that they're a week away from losing the house. Matt has a plan, but his plan, incredibly, might be an even worse idea than starting a financial-poetry website.

Jess Walter excels at writing topical novels. His 2006 hit, The Zero, dealt with the aftermath of 9/11; Citizen Vince tackled witness protection and the significance of voting. Now he's written a story about the recession, a topic so fresh we're still in it. The Financial Lives of the Poets is a tougher sell—partly because a global economic downturn holds less drama than organized crime or a terrorist attack, but mostly because, this time around, Walter lacks a tough guy to hang the story on. Matt is kind of a screw-up. He knows he's a screw-up, but that doesn't mean it's any less frustrating to watch him keep making bad decisions. He's probably a more realistic character than the heroes of Citizen Vince and The Zero. Like many, he's been seduced and betrayed by the American dream, but he's still helplessly drawn toward it. Every time he catches the tiniest break, he starts doing Ponzi-scheme math to figure out how he can leverage that little bit into a lot. It never works.

Walter's consistently sardonic, smarty-pants narrative voice turns this bleak tale into an entertaining romp. He's a master of the vernacular: the "conversations" between Matt and the pot-smoking guys he meets at a 7-11 are spot on, if dishearteningly vapid. The plot gets very crowded and the realism grows thin in the book's second half, but Walter's message comes through loud and clear. As a reader, you hope things work out for Matt. But you can't help thinking it's against the odds.

Becky Ohlsen is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.

Jess Walters' website.

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