The Odds by Stewart O’Nan

“She said she’d never loved anyone but him and dissolved into tears, as if it were a new confession and not her usual grievance.”

The Odds from Stewart O’Nan is a prescient novel that explores a few days in the life of married couple Art and Marion Fowler. Why prescient? In middle age, Art  and Marion rode the wave of the economic boom, buying an old home which was priced above their means and then remortgaging it in order to fix it up. Now post boom, about to lose their house, buried in credit card debt, on the brink of filing bankruptcy and both of them unemployed, the novel begins with Art and Marion on a miserable bus trip to spend Valentine’s Day at Niagara Falls. While their mission is ostensibly for Art to win enough money at roulette with his “surefire” method to get out of debt, there’s a second mission afoot. Although they plan to divorce in order to hide assets, it’s their wedding anniversary, and Art hopes to convince Marion that he still loves her.

The final weekend of their marriage, hounded by insolvency, indecision, and stupidly, half secretly, in the never distant past ruled by memory, infidelity, Art and Marion Fowler fled the country. North to Canada. “Like the slaves,” Marion told her sister Celia. They would spend their last days and nights as man and wife as they’d spent the first, nearly thirty years ago, in Niagara Falls, as if, across the border, by that fabled and overwrought cauldron of new beginnings, away from any domestic, everyday claims, they might find each other again. or at least Art hoped so. Marion was just hoping to endure it with some grace and get back home so she could start dealing with the paperwork required to become for the first time in her life, a single-filing taxpayer.

Art books the “Valentine’s Getaway Special” and while I’d never intended to go and visit Niagara Falls, after reading The Odds, now I have plenty of reasons not to. This tawdry mini-vaca is “$249, inclusive of meals and a stake of fifty Lucky bucks towards table games” which probably sounded like a great bargain to Al when he booked it. Well it is a bargain I suppose if you don’t mind standing in line for hours, suffering food poisoning, and being herded around like cattle.

I’ve never understood the attraction to gambling, and the idea of the cheap package holiday which includes a casino has no appeal, but in spite of the negative (or even perhaps rather nastily because it) I was certainly committed to the trip along with Art and Marion. There’s an irony to all of this, of course, as Art and Marion have plunged into irreversible financial disaster, and yet Art is now, suddenly and rather too late, calculating just how much money the trip is “saving” them “in gas, not to mention parking.” Naturally the trip to Canada on the bus is miserable, and that’s just the beginning…. 

Al and Marion spent their honeymoon decades earlier at Niagara Falls. There’s something old and sad about a couple returning to the scene of the crime three decades later. I suppose that if the marriage is good, then perhaps the return would be a happy one, but in this case Al and Marion’s marriage is in the toilet, and memories of infidelity serve to wash up the detritus of the past. Not that this couple bicker. Instead they keep their thoughts mostly to themselves. Here’s Marion adroitly avoiding Al on the bus:

She addressed her mystery again, tilting it to the beam of light from the overhead console. She read two or three a week, the pile of cracked and yellowing paperbacks on her nightstand dwindling as the one on the marble-topped table by the front door grew until it was time to trade them in at the Book Exchange. “I’m reading,” she’d say when his hand was advancing under the covers, and he would retreat.  

The plot tracks Al and Marion’s tired attempts at sightseeing. Everywhere they turn, they’d surrounded by honeymooners grappling each other, passionately, and no matter what they do, they can’t escape themselves or the painful memories of infidelity:

It was common enough for her to bring up the subject on special occasions, as if she’d been waiting for the perfect moment, lobbing it into the middle of her birthday dinner or their anniversary. She had a genius for self-pity that defeated even his. He liked to believe that by act of will and the passage of time he’d gotten beyond thinking of Wendy every day, while Marion, who’d never met her, tended her memory like a widow.

While Al imagines that the impending divorce is a mere formality, Marion sees it as a permanent change, so we read their conflicting versions of the future as well as their bitter memories of the past. When it comes to the intricate details of a troubled marriage, Stewart O’Nan has the inner politics down.

“Want a neck rub?” Art offered.

“I’m just tired of sitting.” She shifted and went back to her book, ignoring him again.

These little rebuffs, he would never get used to them. Years ago he’d come to accept that no matter how saintly he was from then on, like a murderer, he would always be wrong, damned by his own hand, yet he was always surprised and hurt when she turned him down. Gently, perhaps, but flatly, straight to his face, dismissing him as if he were a servant, his assistance no longer needed.

Chapter titles are also facts: “Odds of being killed in a bus accident: 1:436,212,” is one example, and the chapter title reflects the content to come. Without giving away too much of the book, I can say while I enjoyed the inner politics of a tired, damaged marriage, the ending came as a disappointment. This may just be my nasty mind. A friend recommended reading Last Night at the Lobster, the book she considered O’Nan’s best. The Odds certainly convinced me that I want to read this author–who is sometimes given the name “The Bard of the [American] working class,” again.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley. Read on the kindle.


Filed under Fiction, O'Nan Stewart

13 responses to “The Odds by Stewart O’Nan

  1. ‘Emily, Alone’ is my favorite Stewart O’Nan novel. ‘The Odds’ was a good novel but not his best. I have been to Niagra Falls and it really is not as nice as portrayed!

  2. I was born and raised in Kitchener, Ont., not far from Niagara Falls. I can say that even on my first trip as a child (which would be more than 50 years ago) I thought the town was tawdry — and that was before the gambling casinos arrived to replace the rundown honeymoon motels.
    Since I know a bit about that part of the world, a couple of questions. Where do the couple take the bus trip from? And what is O’Nan’s home base? I am interested enough in the premise of his work that I might give him a try.

  3. I read Snow Angels which I liked enough to want to read more of him and then Last Night at the Lobster which I loved. I got Wish You Were Here and have high hopes for it.
    This sounds like a typical O’Nan in some ways but I think Snow Angels must be far better and some others as well.
    For me Niagara Falls is so tied to the Monroe movie which I saw first as a child and triggered a major Monroe obsession that I couldn’t get that out of my mind. And even there it does look like a cheap holiday choice. I wasn’t aware that the honeymoon motels were replaced by casino’s.
    Oh, and one Joyce Carol Oates novel The Falls is set there as well. An odd novel.
    I’m not sure why the end of this one disapppointed you – I guess Snow Angels wouldn’t. It’s told backwards, from what I remember.

    • Caroline: I thought about the Marilyn Monroe film too, and I’ll admit that my ‘vision’ of Niagara Falls plummeted dramatically after the novel. The place sounds awful in the book–interminable lines (one thing I can’t stand).

      I wanted a different ending which probably isn’t fair as it’s not my book after all.

  4. It sounds reasonably good, but not enough so as to quite make my TBR pile. Too much else already on.

    I was raised to be hostile to gambling, successfully as it turned out. Apparently my great-grandfather on my father’s side was a bookie in the 1920s. My grandfather grew up with the stigma of it, there were apparently public information campaigns then against bookies – the idea was that they took money from the pocket of the working man leaving his wife and children to go hungry.

    My grandfather and father were both vehemently anti-gambling, seeing it as a game that only the bookie won. Because of that my great-grandfather, whom I never met, has influenced me and my own attitudes. Bizarre how these things echo down the years.

    • Max: My dad fed one-armed bandits while we hid behind the sofa to avoid tradesmen who knocked at the door to collect overdue bills. As far as gambling is concerned, I’d rather flush my money down the toilet. The house, after all, always wins.

  5. Okay, if you live in Cleveland, Niagara Falls might not be that bad an escape. Even by bus.

    The Falls themselves are nice although I have to admit that even that attraction ended for me when a friend threw herself into the river just above them in a suicide (it is one of Canada’s most popular sites for that — Jane Urquhart actually wrote a novel about it, based on a character down river who fishes out the bodies. As a noir fan, that is pretty noir you must admit.)

    And I lived in Pittsburgh for three years and am now very interested in O’Nan. I’ll be searching out thoughts on his titles. Thanks.

  6. Kevin: I think this writer captured the politics of a troubled marriage, and I also liked how he wrote.
    As for fishing out the bodies, it would make anyone lose the ‘romance’ of the Falls.

  7. Reading you, I’m glad I chose another part of Canada for my honeymoon.
    It sounds good. It seems like a thorough description of a wrecked marriage.

  8. Am a bit late to this, but just wanted to say, damn you for making my wishlist grow that little bit longer! I do like the sound of this…

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