Going Bankrupt

I just read Jess Walters’ novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets.

It’s a bit like Breaking Bad, though I don’t think anyone copied. The author must be pretty tired of hearing the comparison too, especially as his real name is a combination of Breaking Bad’s main characters.

In this version of the story, the respectable family man who becomes a drug dealer is not motivated by cancer but by debt.

The plan to sell drugs (pot in this case, not meth) to his respectable middle-aged friends comes to nothing in the end and he just ends up filing for bankruptcy.

The final scenes involve sending his two kids to the cinema without him (because he can only afford two tickets) and splitting a single ice-cream cone with his wife. This newfound hardship is portrayed as relatively noble, the detox our guy needs if he’s to turn over a new leaf.

As it’s portrayed, the simple life of the bankrupted maker of bad decisions is remarkably similar to my own. He lives in a one-bedroom apartment. He doesn’t have money to squander on cinema tickets. Etc.

I chose this life so I can get on with poorly-recompensed cultural production. It’s more important to me to be a writer than to live materially well. It’s the old starving artist model. I never feel like I’m starving though and our small apartment is enough. I’m not complaining.

But unlike me, the guy in this novel enjoyed a decades-long joyride through material wealth and debt generation before coming to accept less. I didn’t have the fun of that! What’s more, the consequences of his joyride were minimal. Bankruptcy didn’t lead to homelessness. He just had to liquidate and downsize. So what?

He says he has “bad credit” now and must claw back his reputation as a borrower through frugality and hard work, but in my experience “bad credit” doesn’t matter a great deal. We didn’t have good credit when shopping for our first non-rented home because, averse to borrowing, we’d never generated debt or therefore paid any off. I’d been warned about this in advance by well-meaning friends, but it turned out not to matter at all: we bought the flat we wanted. Nobody gave a hoot about our credit, “good” or otherwise. Credit turned out to be something of a bogeyman.

I sometimes wonder if my aversion to debt is too extreme. Maybe I should max out a bunch of credit cards and be happy. I could skip the acquisition-and-liquidation of a McMansion part of the story and spend the bank’s money on good food and travel instead, non-material experiences they won’t be able to reclaim to punish me. Maybe that’s what we should all do.

I sense that this is a bad idea. But after reading that novel I’m not entirely sure why.


For more irresponsible trains thought, read New Escapologist magazine, the latest issues of which are available as instant-download e-books.


Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at wringham.co.uk

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