Stewart O’Nan doesn’t write sweeping epics, doesn’t delve into places far away or times long past.
Instead, he peers deeply into the personal — the real lives of real people, their dreams and fears, their triumphs, however small, and their failings, however petty. In these lives, he teases out larger truths, the truths we can all relate to, even if we haven’t shared the experience.
As an example, his 2007 novel “Last Night at the Lobster” looked at single night in the lives of restaurant workers, the night before their Red Lobster was to close. The small dramas, the grind of the work, the mixed feelings about the closing, and the various attitudes — and even pride — that people bring to their jobs were all explored in a way that neither glorified nor condescended to the workers.
With this new novel he has created another exquisite gem. And he does it with his usual precise, evocative, sometimes playful prose.
“The Odds” focuses on Art and Marion Fowler, long married but for quite a while now not happily, on the verge of divorce and bankruptcy. They’ve decided to take one last chance: a bus trip to Niagara Falls to risk what’s left of their money on the roulette wheel at a casino in a desperate attempt to stave off foreclosure.
Not coincidentally, Niagara Falls was where they spent their honeymoon three decades earlier, a fact that is in the back of both of their minds, even as they have resigned themselves to separate lives going forward.
Each chapter heading in “The Odds” is the odds of something, from winning an Olympic medal to seeing a shooting star to surviving a plunge over the Niagara Falls in a barrel. Sometimes it relates directly to what’s happening with Art and Marion; other times the connection is more oblique. Regardless, it’s a fun touch that demonstrates O’Nan’s attention to detail.
Art and Marion aren’t gamblers, normally. But they’ve reached the point where they feel they have nothing left to lose — a feeling that is dangerous, scary and yet exhilarating for both of them.
We can’t help but root for them, even as we know they’re taking an awful risk and the odds are against them. But when Marion realizes that “The happiest she’d ever been was with him, and the saddest. Was that the true test of love?” we know — or at least hope — that there’s still hope for the two of them.
O’Nan manages to be both timely and timeless: “The Odds” is set right now, but this time period is merely a setting, not the focus. While the current economy has driven the Fowlers to their situation, the problems they face — infidelity, lack of fulfillment, money woes — could be any couple’s, any time’s. That their story is new and fresh and compelling is a testament to O’Nan’s power as a storyteller.