Monday, February 20, 2012

What are the odds?

The Odds by Stewart O'Nan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some kind of kismet got a copy of Stewart O’Nan’s The Odds: A Love Story into my hands right before Valentine’s Day last week. The Odds, you see, has been praised as “a Valentine to marriage as it is actually lived in troubled times.” It  tells the tale of Art and Marion Fowler, an unemployed  50-something couple on the brink of bankruptcy and divorce who travel to Niagara Falls on Valentines weekend 2010 to spend a second honeymoon in the bridal suite of the swankiest casino on the Canadian side of the Falls. Oh, and they’ve got a duffel bag full of cash with them, what’s left of their life savings, to wager on the high-stakes roulette wheel. Art is a laid-off insurance actuary, a man whose entire professional life was devoted to assessing and minimizing risk, and he’s got a plan to beat the wheel. One night’s gamble will determine the fate of the Fowlers’ about-to-be foreclosed home, their teetering marriage, the rest of their lives.

The Niagara trip is as fraught and uncomfortable as you would expect; every word, every gesture that passes between Art and Marion is weighed and sifted for hidden meaning, questionable intent, and the least whiff of ancient grievances never forgiven. Sound glum? It’s not. O’Nan is a master of wistful melancholy, and he reels the reader in with his sympathetic characters, extraordinary attention to the significant details of everyday life, and unexpected flashes of humor. His books leave you feeling wrung out but thinking “Yeah, that is how it is.”

Someone dubbed Stewart O'Nan “The Bard of the Working Class.” The label is apt but altogether too highfalutin for America’s master of kitchen sink realism. I don't know of any other contemporary American writer so open-hearted, so immune to easy irony, and so understanding of the outsize passions of hardworking, ordinary people. For all that, O'Nan is never syrupy or condescending. Quite the opposite. The comparison that comes to mind whenever I recommend O'Nan is Bruce Springsteen. Like Springsteen’s songs, O’Nan’s books are populated by ordinary people living ordinary lives in a world where things fell apart long ago and the deck has always been stacked against us. But it’s a world of chiaroscuro beauty, where darkness is pierced by everyday miracles of love and decency, of hope and dignity preserved, of stubborn perseverance in the face of certain failure. Real “Born in the USA” stuff.

No comments:

Post a Comment