Kemper's Reviews > The Financial Lives of the Poets

The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter
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Sep 11, 14

bookshelves: humor, modern-lit

Warning: The first part of this review consists of my idle musings on a topic that occurred to me while reading this book. If you don’t give a damn about that and just want to get on with the review, skip down.

Ever notice how it seems like the same idea start showing up in a variety of tv shows, films, or books at roughly the same time? I’m not talking about the straight-up rip-offs that appear when something like The DaVinci Code hits it big or when trends like vampires or zombies become hot and spark countless films, books, comics, etc. to cash in.

I’m talking about when a specific idea seems to come up repeatedly. For example, back in the ‘90s, Grosse Pointe Blank had a gag where a hit man was talking to a therapist. A year later, Lawrence Block had his contract killer Keller talking to a shrink in the book Hit Man.* Two years after that, psychiatrist Billy Crystal was giving advice to a mobbed-up Robert DeNiro in Analyze This. That same year saw the beginning of Tony Soprano’s relationship with Dr. Melfi.

* Correction - Someone pointed out in the comments that Block wrote the short story Keller In Therapy before Grosse Pointe Blank came out. In the novel Hit Man Block took several Keller short stories and used them as bits for the novel, and I had only read the novel not the stories so I didn't realize that Block had beaten GPB to the punch as far as the idea of a hit man talking to a therapist. As a Lawrence Block fan, this makes me happy.

None of these really seem like any form of plagiarism. Even though they all traded on the idea of a professional criminals talking to psychiatrists, they all did very different things with the concept. Yet, it always bugged me a little. I feel like David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, should be sending royalty checks and gift baskets to the Gross Pointe Blank screenwriters Lawrence Block.

I got that same feeling while reading The Financial Lives of the Poets when a broke suburbanite turns to dealing pot to save his house. Didn’t Weeds already do this story? And hasn’t Breaking Bad earned acclaim for having a dweeb science teacher turn to dealing meth when facing cancer and huge medical bills?

Other than that basic idea of a desperate law-abiding citizen becoming a drug dealer due to financial hardship, these stories have little else in common. And the idea of the ordinary person turning to crime due to extenuating circumstances has been done a million different ways. You can’t copyright a basic idea. (e.g. Superman led to countless rip-offs, but DC quickly found out that as long as the costumes and powers were slightly different, they lost most of their lawsuits because they couldn’t own the superhero concept.) But whenever I notice an incident of these similar ideas, it makes me think about where the line is as far as specific plot points.

We now resume your regularly scheduled review.

Matt Prior is in a bit of a pickle. He used to be a financial reporter who let the skyrocketing value of his home and a few good stock picks blind him to the huge debt he was accumulating. Plus, he made the spectacularly bad decision of quitting his newspaper job to start a website that combined financial news and poetry. When the bottom dropped out of the economy in 2008, Matt finds himself jobless and on the verge of losing his house.

He also has to try and take care of his father, who is suffering from dementia, and he’s pretty sure that his wife’s flirtation with an old boyfriend on Facebook is turning into something more serious. Plus, if he can’t afford the private school tuition for his two sons, he’s convinced that the shitty public school in his area will only teach his boys how to sharpen plastic spoons into shivs.

When Matt does a late night convenience store run for milk, he meets some young stoners and ends up getting high with them. Realizing that the pot of today is much improved from the marijuana of his youth and that all the middle-aged people he knows would welcome the chance to buy some high-grade weed, Matt hatches a desperate scheme to use the last of his money to buy a couple of pounds of pot from his new stoner pals and re-sell it.

This was an incredibly well-written book that uses dark humor to explore the economic abyss that many people found themselves in after the real estate bubble burst. Matt’s predicament is all too familiar, and his sadly funny reflections on how he followed the ‘expert’ financial advice right over the cliff is a grim reminder of how bad things have been for some people in the last couple of years. The book also deals with the guilt that Matt feels for not realizing sooner that his high-debt lifestyle could only have led to disaster.

I had never heard of Jess Walter and picked this book up when the title caught my eye, and I saw a gajillion raving blurbs on the cover. I’ll definitely be checking out more of his work.
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Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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Stephanie It's a common practice in the "industry". If a movie, tv show or book is a hit at all they scramble to ride the coat tails to make a buck. I suppose original ideas are hard to come by.


Kemper These days, they'll just remake it and not even go to the effort of proper stealing.


Steve I enjoyed this one, too, as well as your excellent review. I'd also recommend Citizen Vince. It's more original, even funnier, and a bit sharper in that dark and knowing way Walter has.


Susan It was well written. It made me laugh. I have read more of his work
since this book. I like his style. I enjoyed your review too.


Kemper Susan wrote: "It was well written. It made me laugh. I have read more of his work
since this book. I like his style. I enjoyed your review too."


Thanks! I liked it a lot. I need to read more by him.


Laurie In regard to your idle musing about spring boarding concepts between novels: I think about how often original stories are stolen by contemporary authors using famous, dead authors. Jane Austen is perhaps the most obvious. "Mr. Darcy's back story!" Give me a break! It feels like cheating to me to use a famous name or reference in a new book - often in the title. I think the only trade in that really worked well (that I have read) is Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre.
Come on people - get original.


message 7: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne I haven't read this yet, but I loved Citizen Vince and Beautiful Ruins. As to your complaint about it being done already, would you complain if he robbed a bank or found a way to hack into a bank and steal that way or if he was depressed and had an affair. I guess what I'm saying, is literature can't be too creative. It's got to mimic real life (unless it's sci-fi or fantasy). What Walters does is make you feel that the characters are real, doing real things, and you're along with him for the ride. I think that's pretty special.


message 8: by Kemper (last edited May 27, 2013 08:06AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kemper Suzanne wrote: "I haven't read this yet, but I loved Citizen Vince and Beautiful Ruins. As to your complaint about it being done already, would you complain if he robbed a bank or found a way to hack into a bank ..."

1) I gave it four stars and loved the book.

2) I wasn't complaining that it had been done before. I was kicking around an idea that crossed my mind while reading it because it's basic plot shared similarities to other fictional scenarios:

"The first part of this review consists of my idle musings on a topic that occurred to me while reading this book."

and

"Other than that basic idea of a desperate law-abiding citizen becoming a drug dealer due to financial hardship, these stories have little else in common. And the idea of the ordinary person turning to crime due to extenuating circumstances has been done a million different ways. You can’t copyright a basic idea"

3) I guess what I'm saying, is literature can't be too creative. It's got to mimic real life (unless it's sci-fi or fantasy).

Literature can't be too creative?!? I don't even have a response to that.


message 9: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne I know you liked the book. I liked your review. Others in the feed referred to "stolen" ideas.
Walters take these "familiar predicaments" and breathes new life in them by creating flawed but loveable characters.
When I say not too creative, I mean that these characters have to be "real". We have to believe that they're out there. Walter's fiction is honest and funny. If you get a chance to read Beautiful Ruins, you'll feel like you were on a little fishing boat with a drunk Richard Burton. You know this didn't happen, but Walters creates the fantasy so that it feels real.


message 10: by Ali (new) - added it

Ali Booth Gribas See also: The Wackness, for a fun twist on the shrink/criminal premise. Also, lest you think the 1990s are too recent for a period film, a fond depiction of coming of age 20 years ago (mix tapes! Hip hop!)


Nancy Watkins Although I enjoyed the book I too was disturbed about repeated ideas from other recent popular works, in particular the old man who's obsessed, or at least thinking about, an air compressor, which is featured in the movie Nebraska. Wonder which came first. Seems too quirky to be completely coincidental and the repetition takes away from the quirkiness


message 12: by Slimtrim (new)

Slimtrim for the record, block's keller's therapy appeared as a short story in 1994 preceeding gpb by 4 years. fact checking, my friend, consider it.


message 13: by Kemper (last edited Sep 11, 2014 07:19AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kemper Slimtrim wrote: "for the record, block's keller's therapy appeared as a short story in 1994 preceeding gpb by 4 years. fact checking, my friend, consider it."

You're right. I forgot when I wrote the review up that Block incorporated bits from the Keller short stories into Hit Man. I'd only read the book, not the individual stories so it didn't occur to me that the therapist bit might have been published before GBP. I've made a correction in the review.


message 14: by Mara (new)

Mara Your line of thought reminds me of Thomas Kuhn's On the Structure of Scientific Revolutions... Also, am I the only one who saw a movie about old ladies growing pot? I think I've mentally fused it with a different movie about old ladies doing a sexy nudie calendar, but I'm pretty sure the first one was a thing too.


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