I'd be hard-pressed to find a more poetically written contemporary novel. That said, it incredibly depressing, even with its reprieves.
I usually shy away from books read by the author himself, but Jess Walter does an excellent job of bringing his characters to life. This is a contemporary story of economic challenges that lead good people to make poor choices, and the spiraling downhill path that can follow. It's a kinder, gentler "Breaking Bad" where one man's desire to help his family leads him -- in innocence, at first -- to see drug dealing as a way to provide for his family. This is not a violent tale, just a sad and inevitable one.
After finishing and falling in love with Jess Walter's New York Times Bestselling novel "Beautiful Ruins" recently, I'm happy to say that "The Financial Lives of the Poets" did not disappoint. "The Financial Lives . . . " is Walter's fifth novel ("Beautiful Ruins" being his sixth) and tells the story of journalist Matt Prior, who quit his job as a business reporter to start a website in which he was going to give stock market advice in free-verse poetry. Unfortunately, along comes the financial meltdown of 2008 and Matt finds himself unemployed and in dire straits. Facing bankruptcy, his mortgage upside down, his marriage in crisis, Matt turns to . . . something illegal. The story is by turns hilarious and heart-breaking--and often both at once. Walter's prose is high-energy, lyrical and it's no coincidence that he created a protagonist with a poetic bent. This exhilarating book probes the depths of human fate, relationships and modern life in America and comes up smiling and breathing deeply. Walters is one of the best and most agile novelists writing in this country today.
The book was weighed down by the constant drone of bitter, sardonic comments from the self-pitying narrator. The listening experience could only have been improved if Walter had written a different book, one with a variety of tones: lighthearted, non-sneering, or self-reflective, for starters. I wouldn't need a lot of those things, but I did need just a few of them, to break up the mean-spiritedness.
Jess Walter is a great writer, and there are moments when this book sings--but far too few of them. The story is tainted by the relentless, self-pitying, whiny sarcasm of the main character, Matthew, who is described as a smart guy but who acts dumber (and a lot meaner) than most 12-year-olds.
Matt is married with two young kids. He's jobless, drowning in debt, and about to lose his house and perhaps everything else. I was completely ready to be on his side.
But my goodwill was ruined by Matt's pathological snideness. Almost every sentence in the book is packed to the bursting point with nasty, wisecracking, stereotypical comments about everyone in Matt's life, from the stupid, malignant former boss (the "Idi Amin of journalism"), to the stupid, over-the-top obnoxious financial advisor, to the stupid pot-smoking gangbangers he meets in a 7-Eleven while--surprise!--feeling sorry for himself.
Suspension of disbelief is a pretty tall order here. Matt leaves his newspaper job to start a website that gives financial advice ... through poetry. (Hmmm. "I think that I shall never see, a thing as lovely as ATT?") Not a single rational human being on the planet would think online poetry+stock tips=profits.
And how can we care about this character when there are so few honest, reflective moments, so few narrative breathers when we can simply see the scenery or hear some non-snarky dialogue, internal and otherwise?
For the first 6 chapters we don't see Matt have a compassionate interaction with his sons, his wife, his father, or anyone else aside from a single street dude who he talks down from a freak-out over a microwave oven.
Matt's advised to make some changes: sell his over-expensive car, shop at K-Mart and maybe even Goodwill on occasion, buy a little canned food, send his kids (oh no!) to public school. He can't do it--it's all too horrifying for him. The snobbishness, added to all the other character flaws, makes this guy beyond annoying.
I can honestly say that the only thing truly enjoyable for me in the first half of the book was a moment when a druggy lawyer read a contract he'd created for his weed-buying clients. When legalese is the most hilarious part of a novel, you know you're in trouble.
He has the perfect tone, but he's still reading a story about a guy we don't like, so even the best performance can't make this an enjoyable experience.
I would have deepened and drawn out his wife's character. As is, she's two-dimensional and nearly unknowable, other than scattershot observations about her shopping binges, online flirtations and hot bod.
I would have cut out the wife's bottle-blonde friend "with the skirt as big as a headband." She's a walking stereotype--the sexy mom looking for hubby number two.
I'd retool (sorry for the wordplay) the wife's high school boyfriend so he's not another stereotype: a hunky lumber store employee with a chiseled face and a woody. And I'd scrap the guy's name (Stehne, pronounced Stain).
The author is such a talented writer, but in this effort he uses cleverness to the point of overkill. The descriptions of the newspaper boss especially needed pruning. Walter describes the guy as the Idi Amin of journalism. All well and good. But he then proceeds to call him the Pol Pot of the newsroom, a bloated despot, a Sadam, a soul-disabled, budget hacking delusional budget monkey, a narcissist or complete sociopath, a sadist, a man who used things "right out of the Khmer Rouge playbook until he dumbed down management to a flock of morons," a guy who "loves journalism the way pedophiles love children," a self-aggrandizing bully, and a delusional general, for starters. We get all that in a rapid-fire space of a few paragraphs. It's way over-the-top.
I'm still a huge fan of Jess Walter! Beautiful Ruins was one of the best novels I've read in decades, and I know I'll like one of Walter's future efforts. I know many, many people who liked Financial Lives, as well.
This book shouldn't be funny--unemployment, indiscretion, drugs, foreclosure, infidelity--none of these are funny topics. And yet in this honest journey through reality Jess Walter writes in a style so rich and poignant, so real, that I couldn't help but laugh out loud as our hero Matt reacts to problems he didn't create, but then creates even more. Matt is so hopelessly flawed, and so charmingly real that I was drawn to him in the same twisted way he was drawn into the drug world. I mean, why not go along for the ride and see what happens. Jess Walter is fast becoming one of my favorite authors.
One likes to have a reason to read/listen to a story. It was so depressing, that it was hard to find a reason to finish, but I storied on. If this is the "new" literature, give me the old.
"The mystery does not get clearer by repeating the question..." --Rumi
First of all this story was horrifically under-researched. If you are going to write about a character stepping outside of their element you must learn and write accurately about the world they are entering and not just the element being stepped out of. Without spoiling anything I'll just state that the inaccuracies were appalling.
The lead in this book is a sorry sack of middle class America with a desperate need to hold onto the inflated financial status he believes he is entitled to. This goes for his wife as well who is forgiven every flaw because HE is broke. Value is placed more on money, material and status than on communication, love, or even achievement and this holds true throughout the entirety of the book despite the supposed catharsis the main character experiences before the end. It does a tolerable job examining the mindset of many in the US coming out of the late economic boom into the real-estate collapse but nothing is learned or gained by the experiences of this transition and the characters remain in this sad state of existence. If this was the author's point (which I really don't think it was) then I can only hope his finger is NOT on the pulse of America. If it is, he should have made a far more profound and dark statement--not a cheezy, half-humorous one full of bad poetry.
This story would have benefited greatly from a more skilled narrator. The author's reading was flat, lacked expression, and often turned the end of each sentence down as one unaccustomed to reading aloud. If anything he succeeded only in sounding a bit pretentious about a work that was anything but worthy of pomp.
Aside from a few funny one-liners and scenarios (some already exhausted by other books and media) this book was a shallow story about shallow people. Not my cup of tea.
Say something about yourself!
I started with Jess Walter with “Beautiful Ruins” and decided to listen to ANYTHING he wrote. I have to say this is nothing like Beautiful Ruins – which took him 7 years (?) to write.
This story is reminiscent of youthful thoughts of getting out of a financial disaster with ‘easy’ money with a dash of danger (aka: excitement). Looking back I would say it was mildly juvenile.
I didn’t lose interest but I was definitely tossed back and forth from the 70’s to the present - how to make it in difficult situations. I don’t know how to recommend this book. It is bleak but not. It has its moments of humor, which would have been more humorous if the situations were not so bleak. Inevitability is another word that comes to mind. I will listen to anything else Jess Walter write. I doubt I will listen to this one again.
The negative aspect the character took. Depressing. It stunk.
ALL the characters. The book is bad.
Audible should never have built this book up in their advertising. Books like this are reasons why some customers may not order new books. Personally, I would like a refund.