Jess Walter: The Financial Lives of the Poets (HarperCollins, 2009)

Maybe I should write a book about 7-Eleven.
Maybe that’s how you get at America, not through fractured surrealism, but through munchies and Slurpees, through overpriced milk and a big-ass 72-ounce Sprite at two in the morning.
So . . . that’s what I did.
Then the economy started cracking and shaking around me, and my friends and relatives began losing jobs and having their lives eroded out from under them; houses began going back to banks and those banks began failing and I saw that my 7-Eleven book was actually about that, as if every secret, every hypocrisy, every clue to our consumer culture lay in the overpriced, snack-filled aisles of a convenience store. So I made the book about that. And my old profession, journalism, was dying and it broke my heart, so I made the book about that, too. And pot. And marriage. And children. And parents. And unraveling. And life, as it often feels, a few degrees too precarious, too sweet, just as it felt to me in that summer, fall, and winter of 2008. As it feels to me now.
“This Is Sort of How This Book Came About” by Jess Walter, part of the P.S. at the end of the novel

Why do I so often find what an author says about his work (or what others say about it: see also “The [] Collapse” – “Two men walk into a 7-Eleven” – by Luke Baumgarten for a fantastic, “real” book review) to be as profound (sometimes more profound, though that isn’t the case here) than the work itself? And why have I gotten this far in this post without actually talking about the book?

I loved this book. (Whew, finally got there) I’m still struggling to find a way to talk about books, about novels, in posts – I want to include every wonderful thing, and that just isn’t possible – so please bear with me. Best advice: read it. I don’t remember where or when I got the notion to read it but I’m very glad I did.

It’s a four-year-old book; plenty of commentary can be easily googled. So I’ll just list a few key elements, and the two things that struck me most.

Matt Prior is a mess: laid off, a week away from losing his house, with his wife pre-affair texting Chuck the lumberman at Home Depot; his demented father moved in after losing everything he had to a stripper named Charity; and he’s not sleeping. But there are no innocent victims in this book; they all had a hand in their demise. Matt quit his newspaper job a couple of years earlier to start a financial/poetry website (a preposterous idea for a business venture, but a brilliant one for a novel, because it’s a great excuse for sprinkling poetry throughout), spent a lot of savings to get it going, then chickened out and went running back to the paper just before the recession began and the layoffs started and he’d lost his seniority… His wife went on a spending binge herself, buying collectables to resell years hence in some strange Internet moneymaking scheme. Even his kids aren’t total innocents: they clamor for the latest electronics as soon as they hear about them. On a trip to 7-Eleven to buy milk, Matt runs into a personable drug dealer, gets stoned, and we’re off to the races as he decides he can make some money selling weed.

That’s the basic layout of the land. But it’s so much more.

Maybe we are drawn to our own destruction, pulled into our own 7/11s.

7-Eleven is how Matt Prior’s father once referred to 9/11. But, as the article quoted above tells us, it actually came from an 86-year-old book club reader, who called Walter to express her displeasure with a previous novel. After berating him for a while (“I don’t understand a word of it”) she tells him her theory: “I think it’s about 7-Eleven.” With a little prodding, she corrects herself to “9/11” but the seed was sown, and that particular little gem was transferred to Matt’s dad and resonates through the book, which starts with Matt going to 7-Eleven to buy milk… you really have to read this book. It’s actually on Scribd, but the format is horrible to read; it’ll just give you some flavor.

Sequelae to the setup include Matt’s visit to Home Depot to check out Chuck, incognito. He ends up buying $1100 worth of lumber and materials to build a treeless tree house, hoping Chuck will realize whose house it is when he delivers the wood, and will have second thoughts when he sees the home he’s wrecking.

Whose wood this is I think I know
Blocking the path to my front porch
Sent by the asshole stealing my wife
Sure it is, of course, of course.

Of course Matt, who was a business reporter for so many years and thus can’t believe he’s been so stupid to get himself into this financial bind, thinks a lot about how he got where he is. His wife’s pending infidelity and his pending financial collapse meld into one big issue.

We’re in a perpetual blind stalemate here; lost. I can see how we got here – after each bad decision, after each failure we quietly logged our blame, our petty resentments; we constructed a case against each other that we never prosecuted….
We’re not husband and wife right now; we are unindicted co-conspirators.
It’s almost as if Lisa and I deserve this. Or believe we do. And I don’t think we’re alone. It’s as if the whole country believes we’ve done something to deserve this collapse, this global warming and endless war, this pile of shit we’re in. We’ve lived beyond our means, spent the future, sapped resources, lived on the bubble. Economists pretend they’re studying a social science, and while the economy is a machine of hugely complex systems, it’s also organic, the whole a reflection of the cells that make it up, a god made in our image, prone to flights of euphoric greed and pride, choking envy, irrational fear, pettiness, stinginess, manic euphoria and senseless depression. And… guilt. Embarrassment. Somewhere a genius economist is figuring the shame index into this recession because we want to suffer, need to suffer….Politicians and TV analysts put on leather stockings and whip their own backs like self-flagellating end-times Christians, slathering for payback for profligate spending, for reliance on debt, for unwise loans and the morons we elected, for the CEOs we overpaid, the unfunded wars we waged. We are kids caught lying and stealing: guilty, beaten children of drunks; give us our punishment so we can feel loved, so we can feel something.

And he blames the refinancer who talked him into the balloon payment coming up, the new editor at the newspaper, his moronic financial adviser, and ultimately, the poets.

What disappoints me is me – that I fell for their propaganda when I knew better, that I actually allowed myself to believe that a person could own a piece of the world when the truth is that anything you try to own ends up owning you.
We’re all just renting.
And this is how the poets failed us.
The poets were supposed to remind us of this, to regulate the existential and tempora markets (Let be be finale of seem./The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream) and to balance real estate with ethereal states (One need not be a chamber to be haunted,/One need not be a house). Hell, we don’t need bailouts, rescue packages and public works. We need more poets.

This is the magic of this book: he goes from hilarity to profundity and back again in the space of pages, paragraphs, sometimes sentences.

I hate thinking about money. Anything more than a standard checking account confuses me. I’ve never understood the constant emphasis on economic growth, and it seems to me eventually the economy can’t grow any more, and shouldn’t we be looking for a system, a model, that thrives on stability? Or is there something in us that needs the roller coaster? I feel a little vindicated that Matt is now thinking along the same lines.

On the Spiritual Crises of Financial Experts
But this crisis, the broken expert sadly explains
Belies all of that, defies everything everyone ever
Believed because it wasn’t cause by famine or hurricane or
By war, by OPEC raising prices or by
Some third-world country
Bailing on billions in loans while its epaulet-happy despot
Bags the humanitarian aid and raids the banks – no
The ultimate cause of this global crisis
In our financial system
Is our financial system.

This problem is endemic to the faulty machine it exposed
And contrary to the news, it wasn’t cause by poor people
Being allowed to borrow one hundred percent
Of inflated home prices with nothing down, not really –
And it wasn’t even cause by traders inventing questionable
Derivative side bets against those same bad loans, not really –
that’s like saying a cold is cause by a cough
that your pneumonia came from a sneeze)—
no, the root cause of this global crisis
in our financial system
is our financial system.

…”Dear Father, if you’re out there
and if you can hear me, protect us from
harm and by all means
comfort the weak and the poor, the wageless and
homeless, hungry, foreclosed, wandering, woefully
afflicted, but if you get just a minute after that
could you please please please
spite the living fuck out of this asshole – I mean it
go old-school Job on the rich fat fuck
this expert who apparently slept though
history class, through every relationship
anyone was ever in, and through the entire
twentieth century, this sure dickhead who
has only now discovered that there is
a goddamned flaw in us all.”

Then there’s the drug dealer angle. Matt needs a supplier in order to deal. Through the kids he smokes with at the 7-Eleven, he meets Dave the lawyer (there’s a hilarious scene where Dave insists on looking up Matt’s ass, then can’t believe it when Matt starts to unbuckle his belt), who introduces him to Monte the grower (who lives in a trailer and has a network of tunnels below in which he grows pot). Monte clears a million a year. Monte’s stressed and wants to get out of the business. Matt seems like the kind of guy who might be able to put together a $4 mil consortium to buy the operation.

How much capital does a consortium need
(I’ve got four hundred in the bank)
To buy four million dollars in weed?

A thousand jobless reporters give money to seed
(At four hundred per out-of-work hack)
How much capital does a consortium need?

Say a homeless photographer begs ten on the street
(Assuming he doesn’t blow it on crack)
He could help buy four million in weed.

A sexy ex-copy editor goes to work on her knees
(At forty-a-hummer and twenty-a-yank)
How much capital does a consortium need?

Newspapers everywhere are dying, indeed
(Even the Times reclines in a red bath)
Let’s go get that four million in weed.

Success for my syndicate would be guaranteed
If there was just one journalist decent at math
To figure how much our consortium needs
To buy four million dollars in weed.

I love a good villanelle, don’t you?

While a lot of this may seem preposterous, it comes across as completely logical. The steps are small ones, well-reasoned even, though only by the standards of a sleep-deprived and seriously stressed mind.

I liked Matt. Very much. In fact, when the book didn’t take the Hollywood turn (the Everything Is Ok climax: his wife isn’t really about to cheat, she’s arranging a deal for her collectibles that will bring in enough to pay the balloon payment and they will go on happily ever after, but wiser – it’s easy to expect this, since it’s so readable and humorous, even the profound parts) I was a little annoyed. I wanted Matt to be All Right. But maybe he is. The denouement works in the classic sense, cleaning up all the loose ends after the climactic ending which involves the treeless tree fort. Much better than the Hollywood version. Jess Walter really knew what he was doing.

And the best news – he has a new book coming out next week.

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4 responses to “Jess Walter: The Financial Lives of the Poets (HarperCollins, 2009)

  1. Pingback: Sunday with Zin: Monica Wood: Ernie’s Ark – Ballantine Books, 2002 « A Just Recompense

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  3. Pingback: Jess Walter: Beautiful Ruins (HarperCollins, 2012) | A Just Recompense

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