THE FINANCIAL LIVES OF THE POETS
By: Jess Walter, 2009
Harper, 290 pp., hardcover
I bought this book for very scientific reasons; i.e. I was drawn by the title and the cover art, which features the silhouetted outline of a man falling out of the sky (reminiscent of the opening credits of the AMC television series ‘Mad Men.’)
After all, I fashion myself a sometime poet (albeit a bad one) and being in newspapers at the dawn of the 21st century, my financial life is, well, a work of art and hope and a little madness – like casually betting trifectas at Hollywood Park on a sunny day in May.
Only just now did I read the acknowledgments at the back of Jess Walters’ novel, which dedicates the novel to “all of my dismayed and displaced newspaper friends, whose talent and commitment deserve a better world.”
Based upon the above, it should come as no surprise that the protagonist of ‘Poets’ is a journalist named Matthew Prior.
Well, a former journalist.
As the story begins, Matthew, a financial journalist, has been downsized by the newspaper where he’s worked for the better part of two decades.
And being out of work has downsized him in the eyes of his wife, whose eyes have begun to drift elsewhere.
Facing foreclosure on his home (a piece of information which Prior has just happened to withhold from his wife), Prior resorts to what every middle-class white person does when facing financial ruin – he sells pot.
*At least this is what is depicted in various books and television series I’ve seen recently (The Wire, Weeds, Breaking Bad). Otherwise law-abiding, well-to-do white folks sell pot, or in the case of Breaking Bad, meth, as a last resort because they’ve got wonderful families to support. In other words, white people only do things based upon circumstances. If you’re not white, however, you must just be in it for the money.
This type of stereotype is a danger when the vast majority of Hollywood writers are all the same general age, sex and ethnicity.
According to the 2007 Hollywood Writers Report commissioned by the Writers Guild of America, 92% of Hollywood writers are white. Over 75% are male.
So, obviously, I have an issue with a major plot point.
But if one can see past that contrivance, and the even greater contrivance that Prior, pre-desperation, tried to start a financial information website (delivered with a literary flourish) called poetfolio.com – a horrible idea, so horrible it should not even be included in a work of fiction – Walter’s other observations are fairly keen and entertaining. Especially the parts where Walter captures the vague discontentment inherent in the genetic strain of the newspaperman.
“It felt like my creative soul was being suffocated by the cycle of writing for a newspaper, the slumping, slacking, always-behind feeling of being a news reporter. And then the stories themselves even seemed to shrink – pieces about this insurance company laying eighty people off … or that hospital joining a health consortium – as if there was a deflation of journalism’s ambition alongside its news hole.”
Good, quick read with plenty of witticisms along the way and an ending that rings far truer than its beginning.
THE HILLIKER CURSE: MY PURSUIT OF WOMEN
By: James Ellroy, 2010
Knopf, 203 pp., hardcover
James Ellroy is a great writer. No denying that. He does, however, have a few holes as a human being. That becomes evident as you read “The Hilliker Curse,” Ellroy’s latest.
To be fair, Ellroy’s life has never been easy. His mother, Jean Hilliker, was murdered in 1958 when he was just 10 years old.
The murder was never solved, and Ellroy’s lonely soul has been searching for his mother ever since.
“The Hilliker Curse,” a memoir, explores Ellroy’s interactions with the various women who’ve come in and out of his life for the past five decades, as he uses each as almost a living chalkboard to work through his past.
Best part about the book: Ellroy’s brutal honesty. Ladies, if you want an unvarnished look at what lies buried in the secret compartments of men’s souls, I would recommend this book. Ellroy has the gift of writing honestly and without filter. He doesn’t try to make himself look good.
On the downside, I could hardly finish the book because the last 10 pages made me just want to throw it against a wall.
Why? Because Ellroy, after a whole lifetime spent going from one relationship to the next, decides that he’s finally found the Holy Grail – never mind that she’s married – and comes up with this whole rationale as to why his part in destroying the marriage is justified. After all, he and his latest have a special bond, right? And her daughters don’t actively despise him. And the ex-husband’s a pretty good sport about it (or at least feigns it well enough so Ellroy never has to contemplate having a shred of remorse).
But based upon the preceding 190 pages, you know it won’t last.
By: John D. MacDonald, 1987
Fawcett, 259 pp.
Tucker Loomis is one hard drinkin’, fast talkin’, real estate developin’ good ol’ boy from West Bay, Mississippi on the Gulf Coast. Loomis — with the help of some wealthy and influential friends and a few cooperative government officials — acquires Bernard Island, a barrier island off the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Loomis knows that the government will eventually buy back the island for a small profit because Bernard Island is one of the barrier islands that protect the fragile wetlands along that portion of the Gulf Coast around Pascagoula and Biloxi and the Government needs to preserve those barrier islands the best it can.
But a small profit never interested Loomis so he fabricates elaborate development plans for Bernard Island. Multi-million dollar homes, clubs, golf course, helicopter pad, marina and all the amenities of an exclusive enclave 10 miles off shore — right in the path of major hurricanes, any one of which could wipe Bernard Island clean down to mean high tide. Loomis knows he could never get all the zoning and environmental permits needed to complete the project but completing development of Bernard Island was never his intention.
Loomis reckons that if he makes his development plans convincing enough, he can counter sue the government for the millions he would have made if he had actually developed Bernard Island. Millions more than what the government would initially offer to buy it back for. Loomis fakes commitments to buy property on Bernard Island with the help of an unscrupulous real estate agent to show that he could have sold his development. But another honest real estate agent (not an oxymoron), Wade Rowley, stumbles across information revealing Loomis’ plans to extort millions from the government without ever lifting a shovel.
Rowley takes the information he has to a high-level Parks official, Gordon Hammond, who expresses his frustration at the continuing rampant over development of the fragile wetlands:
“By now I ought to be able to take the long view. But you feel helpless. We’re in an endless war with the developers, a very critical and deadly war and they don’t even know they’re in one. All they know is that if they are patient enough and generous enough and amiable enough, sooner or later they pry some more fragile marshland from the politicians and take it away from the people forever. They rip it out of the ecosystem so completely it is as if it never existed. They put up condominiums and increase the sewage load, the traffic load, fire and police protection, water supply, education costs. But they make enough to join the right clubs, drive the right cars and build their homes overlooking the water. And they go to breakfast work sessions of the Chamber of Commerce and the Committee of One Hundred to talk about the problems of the future of the Gulf area. And after they are dead, the damage they do goes on and on, visited on their descendants forevermore. Their great-grandchildren will live in a world that is drab, dirty, ugly and dangerous.”
It is a heartfelt story that has lost none of its relevance in the 25 years since it was published. MacDonald is a perceptive storyteller, one who lived through the development boom and bust of Florida and the Gulf Coast, and saw firsthand the excesses and empty promises of developers only concerned with their own best interests. “Barrier Island” is a story describing problems people in small towns everywhere face when rapacious and immensely wealthy and powerful developers decide that their town offers opportunity for profit.
“Barrier Island” is available at our local library.