Friday, November 23, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #327: The Odds by Stewart O'Nan

First up: you must never tell Han Solo this novel exists. Promise that before you go any farther.

(Yes, that is possibly the worst joke I've ever made. So what? It amuses me.)

Stewart O'Nan is a fine writer of novels, on the literary side, and I seem to buy more of his books than I read. (He's not that fast a writer -- a book every year or so -- but I've become that slow of a reader.) He sometimes wanders into genre territory, and does it well, and his books tend to be tough-minded even as they have a close, understanding eye on his characters: they're books where bad things happen, because bad things happen in life, and he doesn't flinch from that.

(So that may be why I don't read his books more quickly -- each one has an impact.)

In reverse order, I've written here about O'Nan's novels The Night Country, A Prayer for the DyingThe Speed Queen and Last Night at the Lobster.

And now I just got to his 2012 post-financial crash novel, The Odds, about a middle-aged couple at the end of their money and the end of their tether, having one last weekend at Niagara Falls before everything falls apart.

Art and Marion Fowler are hugely upside down on their house; Art lost his job and has no prospects of ever getting another decent one; and they're planning to divorce, supposedly to save some portion of their finances. Marion, though, seems to have deeper reasons for that divorce, and Art's expectations that it won't really change their relationship feels very self-deluding.

But both Art and Marion are good at self-delusion: that's how they got to this point. And that's why they're smuggling in $40,000 US to bet on a European-style roulette wheel (with only one zero) in a carefully planned but awfully shaky method to double their money. It's a fool-proof plan, Art says: the only thing that can go wrong is if they have five losing bets in a row.

Five isn't all that many. You could count up all of the losing bets Art and Marion have made in their lives recently, and their streak is already far longer than that.

The Odds is a quiet novel, told in short chapters that mostly alternate Art's and Marion's points of view. O'Nan is a careful, precise writer, starting each chapter with an epigraph about the odds of something happening -- and of course that thing is directly relevant to that chapter.

And it's -- I hope I don't have to say it this baldly -- a novel of character, focused on these two people and their marriage during one eventful weekend that might just be their last happy time, or their last time together as a married couple, before the end. O'Nan is really good at books like this: Art and Marion are real living people and their foibles and faults are entirely true. If you don't read books like this, you should, at least every once in a while. The world is full of people like Art and Marion.

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