'The Financial Lives of the Poets'

Convinced by the spiking stock market and his home's rising value that he's a financial genius, newspaper reporter Matthew Prior leaves his job to launch a Web site that will deliver investment advice — in verse.

Poetfolio.com will offer literary essays and features, but the thing that will draw people's attention, like a female television anchor reporting the news while topless, will be the poetry, Prior reasons.

"Investment poetry would draw in the curious, get newspapers and TV stations to do bemused features about us, and this, then, would open the door for a literary discussion of the thing that most of us spent so many days thinking about: our money," Prior thinks.

Jess Walter's book "The Financial Lives of the Poets" chronicles the destruction of Prior's life as his ill-fated attempt to start poetfolio.com coincides with the stock market collapse and tanking real estate market. Though the book is fiction, the fact that it's set during the economic recession makes it seem excruciatingly real.

That's not to say the book isn't laugh-out-loud funny. If you pick up this book from a book store or the new books section in front of the check-out counter at the Ashland Public Library, read it at home, not at a coffee shop where your cackles will draw wary glances from other customers. Also, you don't want to be seen crying in public, or worse, crying and laughing at the same time.

Prior is in danger of not only losing his house, but he thinks his wife is having an affair. He and his wife over-stretched in buying their home, then took out home equity loans. (By the way, who was the marketing charlatan who succeeded in getting consumers to replace the shame-inducing term "second mortgage" with the innocuous sounding "home equity line of credit"?)

Though expensive, Prior's gentrified home is in such a bad neighborhood that he sees kids at the local public school beating each other up on the playground's outskirts. He puts aside his liberal views and enrolls his two sons in a private Catholic school. His sensitive younger son Franklin is the kind of kid who hides his poopy underwear in a wastebasket, along with a scary picture of a monster that he tore out of a book. Prior's financial problems make the private school tuition unaffordable.

"When I picture those bullies at Baghdad Elementary walking Franklin to the edge of the playground, my mouth goes dry," Prior thinks.

Although the main character says he writes pedestrian, amateurish verse, sometimes the poems in the book strike a nerve. In one, Prior writes about sitting next to a stock trader "on the hard wooden pews of bankruptcy court." The trader claims to know what will be the next hot thing to drive up the stock market.

"... it's all I can do to not beg the man for that last tip, that final stake like some idiot junkie who kicks smack by going on crack kicks crack by going on meth kicks meth by going on smack — jonesing for the next thing, because relapse is what we mean when we say recovery."

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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