Stewart O’Nan’s novel, The Odds -- A Love Story, has many strengths and a few weaknesses, though perhaps the weaknesses are more important than the strengths.
This is a book about a couple whose children are out of the house, who have lost everything in the financial meltdown, and who have decided that they will go to Canadian casinos bordering Niagara Falls to try to win enough money to ease their forthcoming bankruptcy proceedings and inevitable divorce.
The desperate improbability of this scenario is eye-catching, to be sure. O’Nan’s strength is that he makes it real through minute, accurate observations of the couple’s interactions (from both perspectives) in the context of a two-day visit to an appalling tourist destination (not Niagara Falls’ fault).
As I followed what occurs between Art and Marion during their sojourn into reckless gambling, including bedroom, whirlpool, and bar scenes, I couldn’t help thinking of some of John Updike’s Rabbit books and Richard Ford’s Independence Day. Updike was able to make American commercial shlock and meaningless sex sparkle with his dancing style. Ford generally is a more sour and flat critic of contemporary culture in the USA; there’s more overt pain in his work than in Updike’s. O’Nan clearly knows our lifestyle is both thin and dangerous to our souls and wallets, but neither he nor his characters take much issue with the general erosion of civilization that leads, somewhat inevitably, to lots of troubled marriages. Things don’t look good; but they are what they are; and who can do anything about it?
The backstory is that Art had an affair twenty some years ago, and Marion never forgave him. She did, however, have her own affair with a woman, and continues to keep that secret. This tit-for-tat seems to lie at the core of Art’s neediness and Marion’s somewhat generous ambivalence toward him. She’s expert at turning away from him when he wants sex, but she feels guilty about it. So she gives him what he wants, which he tends to think is his gift to her, and then wishes she hadn’t because she knows what she really wants is to separate, live free, get her own place and disentangle herself from him, their past, and their financial crisis.
The brevity, quick pace, good dialogue, insightful details that abound in The Odds compensate to a certain extent for the fact that the really important events in these two lives are only remembered in snatches. We don’t know why Art had his affair. We aren’t really with Marion when she goes through the full stages of a relationship with another woman. We aren’t in the kitchen when Art and Marion are hit in the face by the reality that they really will, having lost their jobs, lose their home. This is the big stuff, not the entertaining but essentially unimportant issue of whether they win or lose playing roulette according to Art’s carefully devised method.
In newspaper jargon, O’Nan has buried his lead. This would be a more compelling book if it took us step by step through the insults and injuries that have brought Art and Marion to emotional and financial ruin. Once we had that in hand, we’d care more about the edgy gamble they undertake to somehow keep them off the streets and in touch with one another as life goes on.
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