As much as I crave the chubby novels with 58 main characters, 130 subplots and a heft that guarantees the reader Popeye sized forearms by page 500 I do find the quiet, small, I’m-not-sure-anything-ever-happens-until-suddenly-it-has-happened novels very impressive. Stewart O’Nan is a master of such novels. He leads the reader through the lives of the people they live next door too with the dexterity of a spellbinder.
The Odds is O’Nan’s new novel. It tells the story of Art and Marion Fowler’s marriage. Their 30th anniversary is looming along with their impending divorce and the foreclosure on their home. In a last ditch effort to maybe save their marriage and home Art and Marion take a bus trip they cannot afford from Ohio to Niagara Falls. They honeymooned there and a return trip might bring a miracle that could change to their situation. Once in Niagara, Art and Marion are surrounded by young newlyweds and couples their age celebrating anniversaries. It is all a reminder of what was and what has been lost and of Art’s optimistic fantasy and Marion’s middle age inertia.
Thirty years of hard work and careful financial choices have not saved Art and Marion from a devastating economy. Art, the fixer, thinks he has a handle on that problem. He’s been practicing on online gambling sites. He thinks he knows how to beat the house. O’Nan takes advantage of that plan by heading each chapter of the novel with the odds on: a married couple making love, on Heart playing Barracuda at a concert, on vomiting while on vacation, etc.
O’Nan alternates the chapters between Marion and Art but The Odds is never a she said, he said Can This Marriage Be Saved piece. There is too much reality, too much recognizable everyday in The Odds. It also helps that O’Nan respects his characters. He reveals their story, their sadness without sarcasm or superiority.
I don’t have the skills to properly convey how Stewart O’Nan makes the minutia of normal lives, the concerns and experiences of people like all us fascinating, funny, romantic and heartbreaking in a novel without any of the traditional elements of drama but he does. Read The Odds and you read transcendent writing.