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

I’m always thinking about reading more books by authors I enjoy, but I’m often seduced into moving forward, reading the latest, checking out the books that received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly. I’m determined in the coming year to go back and pick up earlier books of authors I’ve enjoyed.

This title’s a case in point: I loved Walter’s Beautiful Ruins from 2012 so I picked up this earlier title. It’s told in the first person and on the first page there’s a distinctive and appealing voice:  the narrator, Matthew Prior. Prior is a hilarious guide through his financial troubles and bad choices. Do you remember that old Barbra Streisand movie Up the Sandbox? It’s something like that. Prior’s lost his job as a reporter at the local newspaper and with a wife and two kids and a house with a mortgage that’s under water and with payments overdue, he needs a quick way to get his finances back on track. He has a harebrained idea for a website,, that will combine poetry with financial advice, he calls it “moneylit.” But his real moneymaking scheme is selling pot to middle-aged folks who yearn for their earlier, stoned days. We pretty much know how that will turn out but that doesn’t spoil the pleasure of reading.

Prior’s poetry is sprinkled throughout the book, blank verse that addresses the financial meltdown and Prior’s own troubles.  The novel exhibits Walter’s characteristic affection for his characters, even the sleazy ones. It may seem like just a quick, entertaining read, but there’s more going on–Walter makes Prior an Everyman of the financial crisis; we’re all at risk from the bad choices made by others.


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