Sunday, December 08, 2013

A net made of money

The Financial Lives of the Poets, by Jess Walter, is one of the funniest novels I've read in some time, but also, as you might intuit from the fabulous title, one with great depth. (What a great title!)

Matt, out of work reporter and about to lose his house, goes out one night to the convenience store to pick up some milk (like, nine dollars a gallon!) for the kids, for their cereal for breakfast, and ends up giving a lift to a couple guys and smoking dope with them, and before the high wears off he's decided that dealing drugs is a sound option, a sensible path out of his fiscal troubles.

Informed of Matt's recent life decision, a friend tells him, "I'll say this about your new life, Matt. You're the only person I know who has anything to talk about right now other than budget deficits and layoffs and the death of newspapers."

Which is ironic, because Matt is all about the money, hyper aware of the cost of milk at the convenience store, and his course of action is a direct result of layoffs and the death of newspapers. It's all he rambles on about in his head. Selling drugs seems like a way out. At three hundred an ounce and a fifty percent profit if he's selling to his peers (nostalgia types, who wouldn't know where else to go), he need just roll his savings over three, four times to forestall the foreclosure on his house.

This may be the great Great Recession novel.
We're broke, Lisa and me — something important cracked in us. And I have no idea how to fix it, any more than I know how to keep from losing our house, or for that matter, how to build a tree fort. All I know is that I have a check in my pocket for less than ten thousand dollars, a check that represents the last threads of the money we always assumed would serve as our safety net, and that might be the stupidest thing we did — not starting a poetry-business website or buying shit on eBay or taking the six-month stay of financial execution, not emailing old boyfriends or getting high at a convenience store — no, the truly stupid mistake was believing that when we fell, a net made of money could catch us.

Matt has so many lapses in judgement, but he believes so strongly that he's actually thinking clearly and logically that I nearly believe it too. Because, this is the big financial mess we're all in, you buy a nice house and a big TV, lease a car and you want to send your kids to a nice school; it feels like anyone could make a mistake or two (or ten), like Matt, and how do you get yourself out of it?
I don't bring up her insistence on remodeling and her online shopping binge and she doesn't stare across the dinner table and say, with all due respect, Matt: financial fucking poetry? And on and on we go, not talking — all the way to the incriminating cheating and weed-dealing mess we're in now.

We're not husband and wife right now; we are unindicted coconspirators.

(Cuz there's that time when Matt gave up his day job to commit himself to a website that gave stock tips in free verse.)

We recently met with the rep for our daughter's education savings plan, and she told us what great shape we're in, which took me by surprise, because we don't plan well, we don't even consider our options much because from where we sit there aren't that many options anyway and they're mostly the same, we just muddle along and I think we're lucky. It's not that we're stupid with money and lucky about it, we just don't give it much thought at all, and I think we could be proactively smarter about it. But it turns out we're doing better than I thought, and maybe we have made some smart choices, like not buying a bigger house than we could afford. Maybe I just take fiscal conservatism and being sensible with money for granted. Which, if you think about it, is pretty lucky.

Matt gets in trouble, but he gets through it. Not exactly a happy ending, but a financially sensible one, which, I guess, is a happier ending than a lot of Americans get.

LA Times
The New Dork Review of Books
New York Times

No comments: