What are the odds that one author could capture two important elements of American life in two books, each of which is under two hundred pages? If you’re Stewart O’Nan, they are 1 in 1. The first is Last Night at the Lobster (blogged here by Connie), a 147-page story of a restaurant manager whose life and identity are invested in his job, despite the way he’s casually dismissed by both customers and corporate hatchetmen. The second is 2012’s The Odds, in which a long-married couple makes a last-gasp getaway before divorcing and declaring bankruptcy. Its 179 pages encompass the silent recriminations, miscommunications, deceptions, and uncomfortable blend of inside jokes and familiarity-bred contempt of a man and woman who may have been mismatched from the start.
Marion and Art Fowler are retracing their honeymoon on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, but this time packing thousands of dollars in a canvas bag. Right from the start we know that they are going to be divorced when this weekend is over, but Art thinks it’s only a maneuver to protect their few remaining assets. He is full of other schemes to minimize the damage from their certain bankruptcy: planning to default on the credit card bill for their extravagant weekend, buying Marion jewelry that is just under the asset level for seizure, and above all, using a solid system to beat the roulette wheel in the hotel casino then smuggle his cash winnings back into the US.
What he doesn’t know is that Marion intends their divorce to be more than a legal fiction. As Art has struggled with their finances, Marion has found a life of her own. She’s impatient with his neediness, practices maneuvers to deflect his affections, and withholds an enormous secret from him. That’s not to say Art is a saint—he can be indecisive, a poor planner (who doesn’t think a Valentine’s Day weekend in Niagara Falls would be crowded?), blind to her tastes, and overly optimistic about the risky venture they’re on.
For all the lows that are finally weighing their marriage down, there are some bright points, especially centered on their children as they begin to make lives of their own. There are moments of intimacy springing from thirty years of living together, familiar rhythms and mutual memories that knit them together and that will never fray. Those moments, small as they sometimes are, lend the story a sweetness that offsets the soured relationship and the desperation of their finances. Like the Ripley’s 3-D movie Art and Marion see, O’Nan puts his readers in a barrel, has them pass jagged rocks and beautiful scenery on their inexorable way to the fall—but he ends the story just as the barrel launches into the mist, leaving us to create our own landing.
(And, ahem, Pulitzer people: you may not be able to make a decision, but I hope dismissing O’Nan’s polished works as novellas isn’t in your catalogue of other sins.)
Check the WRL catalogue for The Odds