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23 May 2024

A financial, comic masterpiece

Walter has packed The Financial Lives of the Poets with so much life and wry truth. (SUPPLIED)

By Jeffrey Burke

Suppose you turned to your stock analyst for investing advice and got this report: "Buffeted by fuel costs soaring, and with labour costs surging; Delta and Northwest are exploring, the possibility of merging."

This is the tilted fictional world of The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter, a comically painful parable of our bad-banks, lost-homes, burst-pipedreams era. It is the fifth novel by a writer of uncommon talent, restless imagination and either a lot of free time or the fastest fingers in the West. He lives in Washington, where he also sets most of his books.

The first two were exceptional crime novels (2001's Over Tumbled Graves, and 2003's Land of the Blind) featuring the same female police detective and broadly different plots. The third was Citizen Vince (2005), in which a small-time hood in witness protection thinks the arrival in Spokane of a top East Coast hit man signals his past is catching up with him. It won the Edgar Award for Best Novel.

Then came The Zero (2006), a foray into September 11 territory that tells of a New York policeman's damaged life after the terrorist attacks. A finalist for the National Book Award, it was stylistically ambitious and irreverent in its black humour.

With his fifth fictional outing in eight years, Walter creates an everyman to whom just about everything bad happens that could in the current economic shambles. Matt Prior, 46, a financial journalist with a wife, two boys and a high opinion of his take on the stock market, decides to quit his newspaper and start a website offering financial advice in verse. It's called poetfolio.com.

Neither rhyme nor reason supports the venture, which devours Matt's start-up capital around the time his wife develops a shopping addiction that adds another cash-suck to their lives. His senile father has to move in with them after a stripper named Charity steals all his money. These things happen before the book's action starts. Matt summarises: "I have seven days to liquidate my retirement and pay off a $30,000 (Dh110,100) balloon payment to the mortgage company, or risk losing our house."

Walter avoids dragging the reader into the slough of despond partly because of Matt's bent for self-pity disguised as humour and largely through verbal and situational fun. The opening scene in a 7-Eleven, which takes Matt from a late-night milk run to his first smoke in 15 years, is a masterpiece.

There are numerous samples of financial verse, including a good TS Eliot parody and a wonderful rant called On the Spiritual Crises of Financial Experts. It's must reading for all stock-market victims.

I got the feeling Walter might be writing too fast, as when a character stands and two paragraphs later stands again without sitting in between. I will grant him a nod or two though. He has packed The Financial Lives of the Poets with so much life and wry truth, all of it timely and topical. 

- Out now from Dh120


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