The Financial Lives of the Poets is the first work of fiction I’ve read that’s focused on the time period leading up to and during the 2008/2009 financial crisis. The book was written and published quickly, coming out in 2009, as the economy was continuing its downward spiral.
Typically, you’d think that literature reacting to swift societal changes would need some time and distance from the events, to process the outcomes and interpret the various causes and effects of what happened. But author Jess Walter saw the world around him shifting and, luckily for us, he didn’t wait to see how things shook out. Instead, he jumped right into the melee himself.
The book’s protagonist, 46-year old Matt Prior, is not having an easy go of things when we meet him late one night in a suburban 7-Eleven. A former business journalist, he’d quit his safe local newspaper job a few years earlier to start a website he dubbed “Poetfolio.com,” where he imagined readers flocking to read, yes, poetry based on business and financial topics. When it didn’t go as planned, he returned to his newspaper gig, only to find that the outlook for ad-based print media had weakened considerably and before long, he’s laid off.
Adding to Matt’s troubles is the sad truth that he’s days away from having his home foreclosed on, thanks to falling behind on his payments after losing his job, plus years of taking equity out of it coupled with a housing market that no longer seems to magically be going up. He lives in this house with his wife, their two sons, and his dementia-suffering father. Oh, and Matt’s also worried his wife might be carrying on an affair (or planning one via Facebook) with her old high school sweetheart.
Here’s the thing, though: this is actually a very funny book, in a dark sort of way. Matt’s resigned to calamity, it seems, and we watch him make bad decision after bad decision. Jess Walter has created a character that we can all, at least in some small way, see ourselves in while also thinking smugly, “That wouldn’t happen to me.”
This book’s astute, though, and keys in on the some of the factors at the center of the financial crisis: too many people owning more house than they could afford, too much risk-taking on Wall Street and beyond, too much credit flowing too freely, and too many overleveraged banks and financial institutions near the brink. It’s a cautionary tale for everyone that entertains as much as it illuminates.
— LouAnn Lofton, firstname.lastname@example.org
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