Thursday, January 3, 2013

Book Review--The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter

OK, maybe I just don't "get" book reviews...

I went searching for book reviews for The Financial Lives of the Poets to see some other viewpoints on the novel.  Thing is...most don't really tell you their opinion of the novel.  Almost like the authors are scared to say ANYTHING good or bad about it.  And we're talking the supposed educated, in the know, class of reviewers in editions of the NY Times and Washington Post here!!  Surely they should be able to tell you whether they even have an opinion on a work or not, shouldn't they?

Alas, no...instead what you get is a couple hundred words summarizing the plot in a fashion no different than reading the back cover or inside leaf of the book (should you be purchasing hardcover!) and then tell you that its "whip smart with bleeding edge current references", blah, blah, blah, and never getting to whether its truly worth your time.

Not here.  Contrived and recycled.  There.  Lets begin.

So a poor newspaper journalist and his wife overextended themselves by purchasing a large house, sending their kids to private school and a car they didn't need.  Then when said journalist tries to start an ill fated website that merged poetry with financial advice and subsequently loses the newspaper job to which he was forced to return, his life is a shit-show.

That's the basic starting point for Jess Walter's satirical novel.  The supposed "giggle giggle" solution to all this mess for the protagonist is to turn to selling pot via a group of young malcontents he meets one night on his way to buy milk!!  Holy cow!!  Isn't that funny!!  A suburban, upper middle class white guy has to turn to selling drugs to keep his house from getting foreclosed upon and his car repossessed!!  Wow!

OK, so some might say this is satire and that I missed the point of the humor.  I didn't.  It isn't funny.  Its been used--Weeds, Breaking Bad, etc. to name a few in current times at the very least (I'm not up on my drug culture media references).

Its not only the retread of an idea that really isn't new to begin with that is a problem here, its the entire tone of the novel.  It came as no shock to me in reading a section about the author that HE is a newspaperman himself.  To call the novel a personal screed would be closer to the truth than calling it a satire.  As the protagonist "wonders" how he (and by inference the rest of the country) got into such a mess, you wonder "Why on earth didn't the author just write in with his thoughts to the Op-Ed page of the NYT rather than writing this novel?"

As a satire the novel doesn't bring any "wow" factor to analyzing the situation our country found/finds itself in, nor is the author brave enough to lay the blame at any one's feet.  Like his high protagonist the author waffles this way and that, kinda blaming everyone and no one at the same time.  If he targets any one cause for our populous's financial woes its our American consumption and "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality.  The phrase "keeping up with the Joneses" is one that is about 100 years old at this point...the "satire" contained within this novel is nearly as old, and stale...

The language Walter uses to craft the novel is clear, modern and concise.  His descriptions of characters and modern living are fairly spot one.  It is unfortunate that the premise behind the novel and the author's inability to craft a new idea or insightful criticism of modern society leave it so hobbled.

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