The novels of American author Stewart O’Nan – he has written about a dozen – are models of craftsmanship, empathy, psychological insight and social acumen.
That O’Nan is not more widely celebrated can only be put down to distaste on his part for artistic pretension. His stories are very down-to-earth, as are his characters – and perspective, symbol and technique are placed solely in the service of knowing the characters better.
O’Nan’s protagonists emerge out of specific historical and social settings – A World Away, for instance, unfolds during the Second World War – and yet they remain staunchly individual, symbolic of nothing greater than themselves.
The Odds concerns a middle-aged couple who are on the brink of divorce. Art and Marion Fowler are, in fact, a cliché. But rather than arousing the reader’s cynicism, O’Nan’s reconstruction of married life reminds us that we are clichés too.
The Fowlers have been married nearly 30 years and have accumulated the inevitable detritus of long-standing domestic life. In addition, they are still suffering the deadly fallout from Art’s affair with a co-worker. Marion agreed to stay in the marriage, largely for the sake of the children.
That was two whole decades ago, and Art has been paying for his indiscretion ever since. The price has been high, including the dream home he purchased for Marion, a large, quaint, fixer-upper. How was he to know they would both soon be out of work?
As the novel opens, the couple is headed from Ohio to Niagara Falls, Ont. It’s supposed to be their second honeymoon, but their primary destination is a casino where they plan to multiply their remaining cash in hopes of saving their house and their marriage. Art puts their odds at five to one. Marion, however, puts their odds at zero: She has privately decided to leave her husband no matter how the weekend turns out.
Art and Marion belong to what the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators would describe as “the 99 per cent.” And like millions of American homeowners, they have been devastated by the economic meltdown. Technically, they should not have qualified for their mortgage. In other words, it was subprime.
As an insurance agent, Art knew the risks companies such as AIG were taking. Even so, the meltdown took him by surprise. He feels responsible for their predicament, sees it as a result of his own weak character. As usual, O’Nan makes no comment. Yet locating the story within so specific a social context suggests he believes otherwise.
O’Nan’s prose is agile, light and utterly unself-conscious. Very contemporary. At the same time, his superb rendering of psychological drama recalls 19th-century novelists like George Eliot. He has good fun with this story. While the couple prepare for their big gamble, Art does his best to create a honeymoon atmosphere. Out of pity and exhaustion, Marion humours him. They take a horse-and-buggy ride, journey behind the falls and visit Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum.
Art has booked them into the luxurious bridal suite. Amusingly, he is one of those husbands who is always trying to “get lucky” with his wife. Unfortunately, she is having none of it. O’Nan depicts the myriad ways in which expectations – romantic and otherwise – regularly go awry.
Out of habit, perhaps, Art and Marion remain generous with one another. And about halfway through the novel, we begin to hope they can work things out. What are the odds?
Donna Bailey Nurse is a Toronto writer. She teaches arts journalism at George Brown College.