The Financial Lives of the Poets, By Jess Walter

How to cope when you go up in smoke
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The Independent Culture

We don't know how much more pain the financial crisis is going to inflict, but it will generate many more books. So far they have been mostly elevated fiction and weighty non-fiction, but humour is now coming along.

In this novel, Matt Prior is a journalist whose career travelled south around the time his debts headed north. The mainspring of his downfall was a dotcom start-up, a personal-finance website with an unusual attraction: poems about monetary matters. Unsurprisingly, it was sunk from the start and Matt is poised to lose the family home – and probably his wife, when she discovers his financial mismanagement. There are a couple of kids to provide for, plus a senile father who's become a permanent lodger after a lap-dancer ran off with all his money.

In the 7/11 for milk, Matt befriends some young pot smokers and realises that weed has become far stronger than in his youth. In less time that it takes to fasten a Ziploc bag he's dealing turbo-charged skunk to his middle-aged peers. Jess Walter's comedy is observational, equally at home with the use of Facebook to plan infidelity (Matt's wife is busy rediscovering her high-school sweetheart) and the lilting exchanges of the yout', as they rap away about "bus'-up rides". The generational clash is good for gags. When his shoes are called "slippers", Matt is affronted. "They're a casual loafer I got at the Nordstrom Rack with a gift certificate," he insists, "when I returned a cardigan that made me look like my grandfather."

The brio of Walter's writing is reminiscent of a superior US sitcom. Some of the best lines belong to Matt's father. His dementia makes him sex-obsessed and he comes across as a scabrous version of Frasier's dad. Matt's poetry is scattered through the novel, providing commentary on the action. His verses return to the wider collapse, one unrebuttable refrain emphasising that the root cause of problems in our financial system is – "our financial system".

The Financial Lives... makes no claims to be social analysis, yet it is noteworthy that Matt is a white-collar professional. This begs the question of what a comedy about the descent of an authentic sub-primer into the underclass netherworld would really be like. None has appeared this side of the Atlantic yet, but in the meantime Matt's erratic mid-life responses to global meltdown provide witty entertainment.

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