A ball rolls on a spinning roulette wheel. (Tomohiro Ohsumi, Bloomberg )
A Love Story
Viking: 179 pp., $25.95
This is how we meet them: "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." This middle-age Midwestern couple doesn't go far: just to Niagara Falls, where they spent their honeymoon. There is a cache of cash involved and a desperate gambling plan that, if Art has his way, will make everything right.
The novel shares DNA with Albert Brooks' 1985 film "Lost in America": a married couple, poor decisions, bright-eyed scheming and that unusual mix of humor and seriousness. Art and Marion spend Valentine's Day weekend in Niagara Falls, visit a handful of tourist attractions, eat at restaurants they can't afford, see Heart in concert, drink, gamble and have sex (finally, if you ask Art). On the surface, it's routine, expected, and that's what Art is counting on: His plan involves taking the last of their money and making a cash mountain out of a secret molehill.
Married for 30 years, Art and Marion were caught by the 2008 recession. Their old, charming house was prone to expensive repairs; like many, they'd taken money out of it to keep it up. And while they were at it, they overspent remodeling the kitchen. This wouldn't have been so bad if Marion's hours hadn't been cut back, and if Art hadn't lost his job in the fallout from the economy's retraction. He was in insurance; he should have known the odds.
"Odds of a U.S. citizen filing for bankruptcy: 1 in 17." This refrain — from the whimsical "Odds of seeing a shooting star: 1 in 5,800" to the depressing "Odds of a couple fighting on Valentine's Day: 1 in 5" — works as a framework, heading every chapter. Stuck there like news from an ironic census, these odds put the characters' desires in perspective. Should they try? Is it hopeless? When it comes right down to it, the odds of whether a marriage will make it to its 25th anniversary (1 in 6, according to O'Nan) aren't all that interesting; it's the details of the marriages that are.
This novel is an intimate portrait of a marriage: We get to know Art and Marion closely, as well as or better than they know each other. We see things closely from each of their points of view. Worn into grooves of routine, they jostle for bathroom space, accommodate and annoy each other — or, rather, Art accommodates and thereby annoys Marion.
Financially, things are very bad for them. They will almost certainly lose the house. To duck out of debts, they're going to file for divorce (this isn't explained in detail, but it's the plan). Art has cashed out the last of their savings, $40,000, and he's going to bet it all on roulette. He has a surefire method. They'll smuggle the winnings — far more than they're allowed to carry across the border — back into the country and start again.
Art has splurged on a new ring — not just because jewelry is an asset they can't seize, but because he wants to reconfirm his commitment to Marion. Yet she has drifted further from him than he realizes; increasingly, she looks forward to their divorce as not a sham break but a real one. She just hasn't quite figured out how to explain that to him.
All of this could make for rather grim melodrama, but not in O'Nan's hands. He brings lightness to every scene, while still making the characters tremendously real, recognizable yet fresh. He works in the micro — the novel slips in under 200 pages — writing close, with fine detail.
There is a clarity to O'Nan's prose: It doesn't call attention to itself, doesn't flaunt dazzling sentences or stunning descriptions. This may undersell his work, which is delightful. There is something movie-like in it — not that this should be a movie, as his novel "Snow Angels" was — but it's movie-like in its easy immersion. Cracking open "The Odds" is like settling back to watch a film as the theater lights come down: It plays out, brightly, before your eyes.