Reading Jess Walter


I’ve landed into a period of heavy reading again and it feels like getting back to yourself after a period of confusion. I want to thank Jess Walter for bringing me back into the land of books through his novel Beautiful Ruins, but also through his other books The Financial Lives of Poets and the short-story We Live in Water (pictured above).

There is something about Jess Walter’s  writing style that appeals deeply to me. Brutally honest and with a wry sense of humour, it captures something I strive hard to accomplish in my own writing. In a self-deprecating way it frames the essence of life with all its blemishes and it makes us see that maybe life is beautiful because it’s far, far from perfect.

Beautiful Ruins (click the link for more about that book) led me to The Financial Lives of the Poets, which is darker and more blatantly funny.  Like his 2006 novel The Zero, it deals in part with USA post-September 11 and in part recession era America. The narrator and main character of the book is Matthew Prior, a 46-year-old ex business journalist who thanks to a ill-advised idea of starting a business poetry website has killed his career in journalism and is instead, through coincidence and a dire financial situation, planning to sell weed to his “peers” in the equally despondent middle-class.

Prior’s dire financial situation isn’t his only worry. His wife Lisa has late night conversations with an old boyfriend via Facebook (is she cheating?), she pursues an unhealthy shopping affair with eBay and to add to this, Prior’s alzheimer-plagued father is living with them and keeps repeating the same line over and over until his son’s head is going to explode. And…as most parents do, Prior is also constantly worried what kind of people his two sons will grow up to be.

You can say he has his plate rather full.

And Prior wants to solve all this by selling marijuana. (Not really all his troubles, but at least the financial ones).


The first thought I had when I understood that Prior’s plan to solve his economic distress was to sell drugs, I thought of the TV series Weeds, which, if not entirely similar plot-wise, works with the same themes: How to cope in today’s fast-paced financial jungle? Why not do something taboo-ish like selling pot? Because doing so will obviously lead to some funny and unexpected situations (story-wise).

Yes, I first I thought: I’ve seen this idea before. But the way Walter pulls it off is clever and humorous and at times also a bit sad.

But he does one of the most important things in all writing – he makes you relate to the characters in his stories and he makes you laugh.

So with this very short review, I can really recommend The Financial Lives of the Poets.

The Financial Lives of the Poets in turn lead me to purchase We Live in Water, Walter’s short story collection.

If The Financial Lives of the Poets was dark and funny, this is more sharp and poignant. The stories in the book deals with loss, abuse, addiction and although many of them are heavy in storyline, they’re always a breeze to read, the reason being Walter’s skilful handling of the American language. In some way his writing he reminds me of another author favourite, Richard Ford.

Among all the destruction and broken people, there is, and here’s the trick, love. And real love, not Valentine’s Day love, not postcard love, not romantic love, but deep and heartfelt love. Between father and son (several of the stories deal with this), but also relationship love and what We Live in Water shows is how much we all hurt  because of it.

Writing that’s “real” is, to me, the best kind of writing and We Live in Water has it in spades.

I also like the contrast between this dark short story collection and the more romantic Beautiful Ruins. It shows that a talented writer doesn’t have to step inside a box and put a label on it. Write whatever you feel like, treat writing as an experiment, don’t think about sales, and publish something that’s you all over it. No matter what topic you write about, the voice will be there, the you will be there.

But I digress.

What I wanted to say with this post is that I’m thankful for books, for reading and for writing and I hope you are too. And if you are, why not check out Jess Walter, a talented writer with some very powerful work.

PS. Here’s a good interview with Jess Walter. DS.