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Chapter 11 and Verse

By Lisa Zeidner
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, October 10, 2009

THE FINANCIAL LIVES OF THE POETS

By Jess Walter

Harper. 290 pp. $25.99

Sonnets about hot stock tips? Haiku about adjustable-rate mortgages? In retrospect, maybe it wasn't such a wise move to bet the farm on a Web site that offers financial advice in verse. Matt Prior, the bumbling narrator of Jess Walter's fifth novel, "The Financial Lives of the Poets," admits as much. If poetfolio.com failed to make him a millionaire, Matt thought he could always get his reporting job back. How could he have known that the newspaper business would tank along with the rest of the economy, leaving him at age 46 with no job, no job prospects and six days left before foreclosure on his house?

Financial meltdown isn't the only problem facing the devoted husband and father in this deliciously antic tale of an American dream gone very sour. Matt's senile father lives with him after losing his net worth to a Las Vegas stripper. Matt's two boys are having problems at school. His wife, Lisa, is despondent from her own failed entrepreneurial adventure -- a belly-up eBay resale business that has left them with a garage crammed with dreck. She sneaks to her computer for an Internet affair with the heir to a local store called Lumberland.

Walter's previous novel, the crisply hallucinatory "The Zero," escorted readers right into the smoke and mangled metal of 9/11. "The Financial Lives of the Poets" is a lighter-hearted concoction, but as in "The Zero," the surreal surprises keep coming.

Unable to sleep amid all his troubles, Matt starts smoking marijuana. After an impromptu confab with some suspicious characters at the 7-Eleven, Matt gets the brainstorm to trade in the remaining tatters of his net worth -- a 401(k) that is beginning "to look more like a 4(k)" -- for enough pot to set up his own dealership and dig himself out of the fiscal ditch. The new enterprise goes about as well as you'd expect.

The plot may sound as slight as an episode of "Weeds" -- suburban parent cluelessly enters goofy underworld to maintain status quo -- but Matt is no sitcom dad. Part noir gumshoe, part average Joe, he's a sharp, wide-eyed, soulful observer, with a keen eye for the layers of bureaucracy and doublespeak that surround every enterprise, from real estate to the "perpetual blind stalemate" of marriage. The novel delivers a scathing indictment of our country's character and the "ruined systems" we labor under. "Hell, we don't need bailouts, rescue packages and public works," Matt says. "We need more poets."

The poems contained herein are not exactly about to grace the pages of the New Yorker. But they sure are funny. Walter gives us Whitman parodies, drug warning labels in rhyme, poems with titles like "Turns Out There Are Only Four Eskimo Words for Snow, However" and poems about hot moms in parking lots. These verses give the narrative the jangly feeling of manic channel-surfing through our nation's recent history.

It's a tricky move to write fiction quite this up-to-the-minute. Today's news can quickly feel like yesterday's newspaper. But Walter, a former journalist, has sharp reportorial instincts and brings us right into the maw of current events without ever seeming like he's writing an op-ed instead of a novel. He keeps us rooted in the perceptions of his befuddled, very likable protagonist. Though the story is peppered with all sorts of giddy, hyper-current references -- Facebook, Wikipedia, not to mention the only poem to mention Costco and NPR in the same stanza -- it also has heart and heft.

Matt reserves most of his tender nostalgia not for his teetering marriage, but for the newspaper business itself. The closest thing the novel has to a villain is "the Idi Amin of journalism, the Pol Pot of my newspaper, he whose name cannot be typed without befouling a keyboard": the soulless, selfish, budget-minded manager who fires Matt and kills his paper. "It never occurred to me that a newspaper could die," Matt mourns. By the novel's end, he's learned the lesson of middle-aged mortality the hard way: "The edge is so close to where we live."

Zeidner's most recent novel is "Layover." She directs the MFA program in creative writing at Rutgers University at Camden.

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