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Matt Prior’s life is in the toilet. Jess Walter put him there.

click to enlarge Jess Walter - RAJAH BOSE
  • Rajah Bose
  • Jess Walter

Two men walk into a 7-Eleven. (Stop me if you’ve heard this one.)

Because they’re out of milk, and because their children will want milk in the morning, and because it’s too damn late to get milk anywhere else — two men walk into a 7-Eleven.

Both have left their stately, hundred-year-old homes, bought at relative bargains because they sit on lots at the brink of a steep real-estate precipice called the “transitional neighborhood.” The men have left their beautiful wives and their sleeping children. They’ve slalomed down that metaphorical black diamond called the American dream in late-model Nissan Maximas, making the descent from upper-middle-class neighborhood to near-ghetto in four city blocks. Flat.

They’ve gone out looking for 2%, and one or two more esoteric things, but we’ll get to those later. What matters right now is this: As the men enter the convenience store, they are shocked and maybe a little frightened, but also ineffably drawn to the spectacle they find.

A group of ruffians, burnouts — gang bangers, maybe — are rummaging around the snack food aisle. High as hell, making an incredible racket.

Both of these men were once respected newspaper journalists. Each is now, admittedly, a mediocre poet. With their keen, reportorial eyes for detail and their bush-league ears for meter, they spin the scene into a herky free-verse poem that begins:

Here they are again — the bent boys, baked
and buzzed boys, wasted, red-eyed, dry-mouth
high boys, coursing narrow bright aisles
hunting food as fried as they are …

And then the paths of the two men diverge.

The first, a guy named Matt Prior, is offered a hit from a glass hash pipe. He declines at first, but gets hustled into driving the bangers to a party. On the way, he yields to their advances, getting ripped on weed that is orders-of-magnitude more potent than the nut-brown shake he remembers smoking as a youth.

Over the course of — how many hours again? 24? 36? — half to completely high the whole time, Prior convinces himself that all the problems in his life, numerous and suffocating, can be solved by buying this plant-derived, hydroponically enhanced euphoria and selling it to other similarly sad middle-aged f---ups.

His old boss. His financial advisor. His kids’ friends’ parents maybe. Not the kids themselves, though, obviously. He has some humanity left.

And since all his other can’t-miss schemes have missed badly — every single one of them — and because he feels himself close enough to the bottom of this whirlpool of debt and failed promise that he doesn’t think he can reach the surface without a chemical propellant of some kind, this guy, Matt Prior, he cashes out his pension and sets about buying some of this too-good-to-be-true, get-you-high-for-days Frankenweed.

The second man, meanwhile, turned his back on the bangers loitering at that store, probably with a wry little triangle smile peeking from the left side of his mouth — the kind he gets whenever the world surprises him, either with its beauty or its stupidity. This man got in his crappy old Maxima and went home to his beautiful wife and children, to his beloved dog and his tolerated cat.

Happy and financially diverse and artistically content, he left the memory of those fading kids and that 24-hour store alone in a corner of his mind to incubate.

Eventually, when it looked as though America as a whole was about to tumble off its own real-estate precipice, his mind drifted back to the 7-Eleven. He began thinking of friends who were losing their jobs, and of the homeless couple who had just come to live on a bus bench outside his house. He began trying to imagine what it’d be like to be in the middle of it all.

What kind of human train wreck would go off with a group of listless stoners? Under what completely insane circumstances could someone convince himself that the solution to his problems is selling pot to the head of human resources or to his realtor?

That second man’s name is Jess Walter, a novelist of some repute.

Matt Prior is his guinea pig.

It’s 7 am on a Friday in August, the new book, The Financial Lives of the Poets, is at the printer, getting hardbound and ensconced in its delightfully retro sherbet-and-white dust jacket (very Mad Men), and Jess Walter has gotten a late start on the morning. He stands in his recently (and tastefully) remodeled kitchen, very slightly hunched over a small black espresso machine, pulling shots for his wife Anne’s morning coffee. He wears checked Bermuda shorts, worn Asics and a black T-shirt that reads, “Movies: killing books since 1920.” The irony of this shirt is that Walter has recently taken an interest in writing blockbuster comedies for general audiences. He hopes, with his screenwriting partner Mark Steilen, to pen the next Caddyshack.

Walter walks his wife’s latte to the foot of the stairs and calls up to her, “I’m leaving your coffee on the stairs.” There’s an inaudible reply. “You want me to bring it up?” Dutifully, he disappears, returning to the espresso machine armed with a dishrag.

“This thing is leaking…”

Before making the second latte, he carefully cleans every inch of machine and counter.

Only two things in Walter’s life are even a little messy: the very slightly graying mop of dark brown hair stowed under his baseball hat and the dorm-room tornado of his work office. These are testaments to the freedom that writers require, a room and a lifestyle and a headspace of one’s own. The order of everything else is a testament also to realizing that indulgences are to be indulged, but only so long as the work is flowing. Once it stops, it’s time to hunker down.

But we haven’t gotten to work yet.

In his conspicuously clean home, the 44-year-old Walter is casually meticulous about the things he does. He makes the coffee and then cleans the machine, grabs his breakfast, a homemade bar modeled on his favorite treat from the Rocket Bakery. If she’s in the house, Jess gives Anne a delicate, comforting peck of stalwart marital partnership. He says, “I love you.”

“You going to work?”

“Yep, going to work.”

Then he slings his messenger bag over his shoulder and walks out the door, across the back lawn, 30 yards or so, to his office.

The gangsters inside the 7-Eleven aren’t actually gangsters. Not really. They’re stoney kids dressed like characters from The Wire. Halfway to becoming full-fledged burnouts, for now they keep the dim flame of their youthful promise alive with a few credit hours at community college.

He never says it outright, not in 290 pages, but the youth of the high boys reminds Matt of when he was young too and his potential, in his own mind anyway, seemed limitless.

Matt Prior doesn’t feel young anymore, and the unavoidable fact of his aging kills him. There are several other things, at the moment, that are killing him too.

Before we get into those, though, let’s speak plainly: Matt Prior is the protagonist of The Financial Lives of the Poets and a complete figment of Walter’s imagination. Walter has taken pains to ensure Matt Prior’s life is as shitty as a well-educated white American male’s can be.

In terms of gravity, the need for milk barely registers among the pressing problems that drive Prior to the 7-Eleven that night.

There’s 1) the layoff from his newspaper job, which Matt only went crawling back to after 2) his brainchild — a financial poetry Website — emerged stillborn, crippled at conception (financial poetry? seriously?) and then starved in utero from a lack of startup capital.

There’s 3) the house he’s about to lose because the mortgage forbearance some crooked-ass bank manager suggested Prior sign up for has a balloon payment of 30 grand due… in about a week now.

There’s 4) the house itself, worth a shred of what he owes on it.

There are the 5) media and 6) financial stocks that Prior, being a romantic at heart, can’t bring himself to sell, even as they drag his net worth toward absolute zero.

There’s 7) his financial manager, who’s just a complete moron.

The biggest problem of all, though — the thing that will ultimately drive Prior back to 7-Eleven time and again, even when none of these other things are bothering him — is that Matt is quite sure 8) his wife Lisa is cheating on him. 9) With her high school boyfriend.

10) A guy named Chuck.

The lumber king.

And all Matt wants to do is tell her: about their money problems and how he knows about Chuck and how none of that would matter if she’d just look at him the way she did when they were young and in love. But he can’t, because he thinks the money and the love are tied together somehow. Indivisible.

And so, to the already looming financial crisis that has destroyed Matt Prior’s portfolio, add these other crises, which somehow never get reported on CNN: the crisis of early middle age, the crisis of estranged love, the crisis of mistaking objects for security and of mistaking security for happiness.

The crisis of thinking that things are substitutes for people.

Oh, but I’d be completely misrepresenting Walter’s latest novel if I didn’t say one last thing.

The Financial Lives of the Poets is a comedy.

The laugh-out-loud kind.

On his 30-yard commute, Jess Walter tells me about his kind old dog, a pound puppy who was afflicted with wanderlust as a stray and, though he now has a stable home, still vagabonds around Walter’s neighborhood, splitting time at three different houses.

Upon reaching Walter’s office, the carriage house at the back of his property, we climb the stairs — avoiding a 13-inch television that blocks part of the landing (the wood paneling on the sides and old-fashioned knobs put the vintage at 1988, minimum) and the single cross-trainer shoe that sits atop it — and duck inside. The space, he tells me, is meant to look as much like his college dorm room as possible. He has kept this desk, the bookshelves and posters (Kerouac behind him, Sonic Youth to his right) and ratty old easy chair. They are the bits of his old self from a time far before his marriage or his children or his mortgage that he allows himself to cling to. “Anne never comes up here,” he says, “it’s my little clubhouse.”

It’s only once ensconced in his writerly Neverland, out of earshot of his adorable family, that Walter tells me he’s hung over. Catastrophically so.

With scheduling conflicts on several sides, his weekly poker game hadn’t happened in more than a month. Last night, he and his buddies made up for lost time. He pauses to moan with delight at his first sip of coffee. Then he wolfs down a third of his cookie before coming up for air: “God, that hit the spot.”

The game went way late, and Walter got a smidge hammered, but he ended up taking the pot, spoils he left on his wife’s nightstand like a dutiful Neanderthal hunter. Supplementing the income from his novels, screenplays and book reviews with the occasional game of ultra-low-stakes poker, Walter is a much more diversely invested writer than Matt Prior.

And more dogged. Every day, even when his head swims, even in the blush of a $100 (sometimes more!) windfall at the card tables, Walter makes the trip to his backyard office, and he writes.

Walter is a binge writer. In the sway of a great idea, he can propel himself through dozens of pages of text. He finished The Financial Lives of the Poets in mere months because, day after day, the ideas and words poured quickly and fluidly from brain to fingertips. (And soon, to bookshelves.)

Sometimes, though, the words don’t come at all. And of course, if he doesn’t write, he doesn’t get paid. This was a much bigger problem early in his career. Like the year he made $11,000.

“That was the year I was worried Anne would say, ‘Why don’t you go get a suit and we’ll do this like normal people,’” Walter says. But of course Walter didn’t want to be normal people. Already a writer by age 30 and a successful one by many benchmarks — he had a book deal for a piece of nonfiction on the Ruby Ridge standoff, a screenplay deal and a share of a Pulitzer Prize nomination — he had aspirations to write fiction that dated back to his childhood in the Spokane Valley. “Kids don’t say they want to be novelists,” he says. “They want to be basketball players. Still, even growing up, that was the thing I loved.”

And so the tradeoff of living the life of a writer is that Walter has to treat it like a job. It’s a job he’s gotten better at in 15 years. He no longer cracks his skull against stories when inspiration fails — the way he did in those lean early years between quitting the Spokesman-Review and selling his first novel. Now he’ll shift gears and work on another project — a different novel, a book review, Le Nouveax Caddyshack.

It’s imperative he work this way, Walter says, because the novels construct themselves differently every time. Sometimes it’s painstaking. A story might have a dozen characters, time jumps — countless moving pieces that throw up innumerable roadblocks that require Walter to carefully cast and recast a story and its characters over the course of years. Sometimes he abandons the thing completely, only to pick it up again when inspiration strikes. Sometimes inspiration doesn’t strike.

But then, sometimes a crazy lady calls him on the phone, tells him she doesn’t understand a word of his work and, within months, Walter has another novel written, shopped, sold and at the printer.
That actually only happened one time.

If Jess Walter hadn’t written The Zero — his brilliant, nauseating, National-Book-Award-finalist look at our collective post-9/11 psychosis — Matt Prior probably wouldn’t exist.

The novel Prior inhabits arose from a complicated alchemy involving A) many late-night milk runs; B) the bleeding death of the newspaper industry; C) the rapid collapse of our nation’s sense of economic security; D) Walter’s tendency to rant in free verse and occasionally perform it for open-mic night patrons at ella’s Supper Club (before it closed); and E) an old, maybe senile, woman who mistakenly thought the overriding conflict of Walter’s The Zero centered on America’s largest chain of convenience stores (7-Eleven), not the act of terrorism committed against it (9/11).

“I was on the golf course, actually,” Walter recalls, “which is hilarious, because I golf maybe twice a year.” Walter cops to playing basketball several days a week, but he apologizes for being a very occasional golfer as though embarrassed by his bourgeois indulgence.

So this woman calls his cell phone — it’s not hard to get Jess Walter’s cell phone, even senile old folks can manage — and she tells him that she’s incredibly confused by his critically beloved new book, The Zero. Why was 7/11 such a huge problem?

Which got Walter thinking. Is 7-Eleven a huge problem? Costco? Wal-Mart? The myth of unending economic growth? The infallibility of real estate? The idea that a life’s worth can be measured in things? Or worse, that these things are meant to be stacked and mortared together to create and insulate a family from its breakdowns?

The idea that money can fix all ills, fiduciary and matrimonial?

Yeah, those all seemed like big problems.

At the time Financial Lives was coalescing in his mind, Walter was living relatively well, feeling removed from the heart of the carnage that was toppling banks and car companies and the real estate industry. And yet things kept happening that tugged him closer to it. The all-night cable news stations went on 24/7 crisis coverage. His home began losing some of its value. Walter’s old paper began hemorrhaging good people — his friends in many cases. Anne feared for a time she might lose her job too, which would have left the family scrambling for health insurance.

And, then, one day last fall, a homeless couple moved onto the bus bench outside his house.

And so, while Walter swears he didn’t intentionally make Matt Prior’s life look like his — “It never even entered my mind” — there they are. The house, the car, the erstwhile profession, the tendency to quill flippant or comical poetry, the late-night milk runs. The incidental details.

It’s a common writerly trick — fill a book with trivial details from your life so you don’t bog down the writing of the larger narrative while you decide the love interest’s eye color. Happens all the time. The fact that Walter left those details in this book rather than changing them — it’s no trick to make the Maxima a Saab, the hundred-year-old mansion a sprawling ranch home — is one final, perhaps subconscious, but thoroughly writerly nod to his mindset at the time.

“I was fascinated,” Walter says, “by how close to the edge we all are.”

Even himself and Anne and the kids and the beloved dog and the barely tolerated cat. The Walters were certainly not the Priors, patriarched by that hapless buffoon of a man, but how far could they slip before they got close? How far could Walter let himself slip?

“Great literature should name something,” he believes. As for the society-deep mania surrounding our migrating market bubbles (junk bonds, then dot coms, then real estate), which turns into society-wide ennui when they burst, which immediately begets another worldwide gold rush for the next big bubble to fill our coffers? “There’s not even a German word for whatever that is.”

And so ultimately, Walter hopes he has named something new with The Financial Lives of the Poets. The mania that led to a collapse that got even Walter himself worried, certainly, “this unsustainable mania that is untreatable and will run us into the ground.” But there’s something smaller, too, something Walter learned from poor, dumb Matt Prior as he tries to right his finances and thus, his marriage. “It was illuminating to see how this financial crisis was really a family crisis,” Walter says. “Did I know that before? I don’t think so.”

Walter gets up to show me some of his journals from that period — a mash, he says, of stock analyses, musings on failure and poems about women’s underwear. He digs through a box and looks in a bookshelf that contains the international editions of his novels (Over Tumbled Graves became Il Fiume Dei Cadaveri, “The River of the Dead,” in Italy), but he comes up dry.

“Shit, I must have left it at home,” he says.

And he’s all the way at work already. What’s he going to do? Go back and get it?

Unlike Matt Prior, who will spend eternity suffering these financial and nuptial indignities again and again, bound in the pages of a HarperCollins hardcover, reliving his hell of ambition whenever someone cracks its spine, Walter has moved on. Unlike the unemployed, unemployable former reporter and financial poet, Walter still has a job to go to. He’s in the speculation game, putting in literary work on the hunch that someone will find value enough to buy it. For five or so months in 2008, Matt Prior’s undoing was Walter’s job. Now he’s on to new work.

And where the Matt Prior job was a breeze, Walter has been punching the clock on his next novel — which has already been sold, unfinished — for almost a decade.

The Hotel Adequate View, which Walter colloquially calls “the Italian novel,” is the most structurally complex narrative he’s ever written. A picaresque that weaves its way between Italy in 1962 and present-day Hollywood, the book features Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, some no-name actress from some back-water town called Spokane and an aspiring writer who makes ends meet penning script treatments for Hollywood studios and ends up “improving” upon the novels he’s treating.

“And in the end,” Walter declares of the kid’s rewrites, “Moby Dick lives! … And Ahab gets a new boat!” The novel also contains a script for a film about the Donner Party and a character who may or may not be Burton’s love child.

“I wanted to look at this concept of fame,” Walter says, an outsized, ridiculous American obsession that became an enormous, often unruly feeling project. Even today, with the end in sight, he says, “It feels like this big, delicate thing,” with a dozen moving parts and themes that seem to elude him for long stretches of time. He’s taken trips to Italy for atmosphere and inspiration, but something always screwed it up.

What gets Walter through those times is the belief, honed by trial and success, that time, patience, and determination can break all blockages.

“They should call it ‘writing block,’” Walter says, placidly, “not ‘writer’s block.’ Your fingers don’t forget to find the keys.” The inspiration dries up, though, and so you switch projects. Of course, that means you’ll need tons and tons of ideas for new projects, so Walter collects story ideas like stamps. A lot of those end up being worth less than the brain matter they’re imprinted on, but it’s important to test them out. No matter what, you don’t stop writing.

Walter thinks his most recent epiphany, about the Italian novel, is the last he’ll need to push the project to that final slope toward completion. Soon, he’ll start climbing the hill of his next novel. Walter isn’t sure what that’ll be, but he has are a few nuggets kicking around his head, Matt Prior-like. His current favorite is this weird little idea for a novel about suburban cattle ranchers.

“Technically, I have to turn in the Italian novel in March,” Walter says, pausing for a half beat, cocking the hammer on his punch line, “and I say ‘technically’ because I could fake my own death.”

It’s a funny sentiment, the idea that a writer would play dead just to buy time for a deadline, as though being late with a novel is akin to missing a balloon mortgage payment or perpetrating a Ponzi scheme.

Walter wouldn’t fake his death, though. He has no reason to. Even when the stories drag to a halt, he fights through, grinds it out, hops projects, shelves things for years. And even if, at some point, he has to endure another $11,000 year — so long as his wife is onboard with near-poverty — Walter will still be writing. He has never had any greater aspiration than to be a novelist. Well, except to play basketball.

And as edifying as the prospect of publishing is, it’s the act of writing that keeps Walter writing. “There’s a point where what you’ve written is reduced by that fact that it has been written,” he says. “Like, ‘Shit, I created life and it’s four and a half inches tall and only does one thing?’” He talks of the postpartum depression writers get when they send their little midget offspring into the world, and how he’ll cure himself by diving back into the work.

Chances are, then, on that morning in March, the day the Italian novel is due, Walter will already be on his next project. He’ll get up around 5 am to make coffee for himself and maybe for Anne. Then he’ll grab a cookie, sling his messenger bag over his shoulder and begin the short walk across his lawn.

Chances are he’ll take the stairs to his carriage house office one at a time, avoiding the 30-year-old TV set and the single cross-trainer on the landing before setting to work writing his next novels which will, with incisive wit and tenderness — the kind of careworn cynicism that comes from being a continually disappointed but still bullish idealist — make complete mockeries of our ability to understand our world, or even ourselves. Every so often, he’ll publish one of these novels and, if recent accomplishments are indicators, critics will think each is uniquely brilliant.

Chances are Walter will continue doing these things day in and day out, as though creating brutally personal stories and putting them to paper is the most natural thing in the world.

Because for him, increasingly, it is.

The Financial Lives of the Poets will be available Sept. 22, presumably at every bookstore in America. Walter will read from the book the next day, Sept. 23, at 7 pm at Auntie’s Bookstore. After the reading, there will be an after-party at Zola.

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