Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Gambling on Love: The Odds by Stewart O'Nan

When it comes to putting American culture under a microscope, few novelists succeed as well as Stewart O’Nan.  Time after time, novel after novel, O’Nan has focused tightly on particular microbes of our society—people like you and me, to be blunt about it—and examined the foibles, the follies, and the flaws of the Way We Live.  In Songs for the Missing, he turned his attention to the grief of a family whose teenage daughter goes missing; in Last Night at the Lobster, it was the disappointment of the American economic dream; in Emily, Alone, it was the solitude of the elderly.

In his newest novel, The Odds: A Love Story, O’Nan puts a troubled marriage in the petri dish.  As we're told in the first sentence, Art and Marion Fowler are headed for Niagara Falls on "the final weekend of their marriage, hounded by insolvency, indecision, and, stupidly, half-secretly, in the never-distant past rule by memory, infidelity."  It's bloated with a few too many commas, perhaps, but that sentence works hard to jam a lot of information into the reader's head.  This is O'Nan's forte: economizing language while filling his sentences with details.  Here's another one just a couple of paragraphs down the page: "They weren't good liars, they were just afraid of the truth and what it might say about them."

In their early fifties and traveling along the time-worn ruts of their marriage, the Fowlers avoid the hard realities of their fizzled romance--to the point where this novel could be subtitled What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Love.  The marriage is pocked with craters, a minefield of secrets which have brought them to the brink of divorce and, by consequence, the edge of bankruptcy.  They're $250,000 in debt, Art is six months out of work, and they're facing foreclosure on their home in Cleveland.  Now they're literally gambling on the future of their relationship in the casinos at the Niagara resort where Art has booked them a room on Valentine's Day.  They spend the mornings playing tourist at hokey stops like Ripley's Believe It Or Not with disastrous results as they desperately try to rekindle the romance of their honeymoon 30 years earlier.  At night, they make plans to gamble in the resort's casino (bright and "achime with ringing slot machines") with the last of their savings--the $40,000 they've smuggled across the border of Canada.

Both have cheated on the other.  Art has confessed his affair to Marion, but she has kept hers buttoned-up inside (perhaps because it was with another woman).  The adultery is the painted backdrop, but it's not the main action on the stage--the marital salvage effort is.

Art believes the marriage can be saved; Marion is less convinced, but is willing to give it one last shot.  Art latches on to the smallest sign of her yielding to his plan.  O'Nan masterfully illustrates a husband's delusion even in the face of disaster: "If, as he liked to think, his greatest strength was a patient, indomitable hope, his one great shortcoming was a refusal to accept and therefore have any shot at changing his fate, even when the inevitable was clear to him."  This becomes abundantly clear when the day of the big gamble comes as Art sits down at the roulette table, systematically playing the black, refusing to budge in the belief that things would get better: "Because eventually, with near even odds, they'd win. It was a question of patience and the willingness to lose big."  Marion thinks "his strategy was exactly like him, methodical to a fault."

O'Nan uses a telephoto lens, rather than a wide-angle, to zoom in on this one particular couple facing the romantic torpor common to so many long-term relationships. The Odds is a short book--less than 200 pages--but it says as much about marriage as any doorstopper the size of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary.

This is essentially a two-character novel--three, if you count the "tireless" Falls with their "monolithic roar" thundering and hissing outside their hotel window.  You can bet O'Nan mines the Falls for every ounce of symbolism he can get: the marriage as a river, the precipice-and-plunge of adultery, the misty crash on the rocks below--it's all there, and told in grand literary style:
Here, hard by the rushing current, with a view of the rapids upstream, she could appreciate this wasn't just a river but a whole great lake pouring over a cliff. Feet from the edge, gulls stood on rocks as whitecaps surged past. The blue water turned a sea-green like the curl of a wave, broke and flew, foaming in overlapping sheets as it fell away, constantly, endlessly. She'd forgotten the raw force of it--the exhilarating danger the reason they were all there.

O'Nan also gets good mileage out of romantic metaphors.  Niagara is, of course, the kitschy-tacky destination of honeymooners and is never more potent than on this Valentine's Day weekend.  Then there's Art's first name, a truncation of "heart."  Heart also shows up--the rock band, that is--putting on a show at the resort.  And you can hardly turn around in this novel without bumping into the color red--in the nighttime floodlights on the Falls, in the rose Art buys for Marion, in the wine they drink, on the roulette wheel itself.

Like the ball skipping along the slots on the spinning wheel, O'Nan moves the novel's point of view between Art and Marion, gradually filling us in on clues to their past and what brought them here to the point of dissolution.  Of the two, Marion seems the most recalcitrant and unforgiving.  Art garners our pity, but also our dislike because he can be too passively inert.  It's easy to understand why Marion is fed up with his non-committal, eager-to-please behavior.  In truth, neither is a wholly likable person, but O'Nan gives just enough detail to make us sympathetic to their plight.  By novel's end--which comes quickly and abruptly--we're rooting for this marriage to be saved.  For such a short, 200-page relationship, I found myself incredibly moved by what happens to Art and Marion Fowler as they float down the river, calling for help from their barrel just before they go over the edge of the Falls.

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