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The Odds

by Stewart O'Nan

Hardcover, 179 pages, Viking Adult, List Price: $25.95 |


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The Odds
Stewart O'Nan

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Book Summary

Struggling with job losses, the imminent foreclosure of their home and a floundering marriage, Art and Marion Fowler liquidate their savings and reserve the bridal suite at a Niagara Falls casino, where they make high-risk bets in the hopes of fixing their finances.

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Excerpt: The Odds

Odds of a U. S. tourist visiting Niagara Falls: 1 in 195

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.

They told their daughter Emma they were taking a second honeymoon.

"Plus they're doing another open house here, so ... " Marion, on the other line, qualified.

They weren't good liars, they were just afraid of the truth and what it might say about them. They were middle-class, prey to the tyranny of appearances and what they could afford, or dare, which was part of their problem. They were too settled and practical for what they were doing, uncomfortable with desperate measures. They could barely discuss the plan between themselves, as if, exposed to light and air, it might evaporate.

With Jeremy, it was enough to say they wanted to see the new casino, a Frank Gehry knockoff featured on the covers of Sunday travel sections and in-flight magazines. He was impressed with the rate they'd gotten. Art had dug around online to find a bargain.

"Your father the high roller," Marion joked.

The Valentine's Getaway Special, it was called: $249, inclusive of meals and a stake of fifty Lucky Bucks toward table games.

They took the bus because it was part of the package, but now, burrowing through a dark wind tunnel of blowing snow somewhere on the outskirts of Buffalo, surrounded by much younger couples — including, frozen zoetropically in the light of oncoming cars, a fleshy pair in Harley gear necking directly across the aisle — they both wished they'd driven.

They'd already made their separate cases at home, so there was no sense going ever it again. Art, ever the math major, always bringing matters back to the stingy reality of numbers, had pointed out it would save them fifty dollars in gas, not to mention parking, which Marion thought absurd, and typical. They were so far beyond the stage where fifty dollars might help — like this ridiculous gamble, betting their marriage, essentially, on the spin of a wheel — yet he clung to his old a-penny-saved-is-a-penny-earned bookkeeping, forgetting the ledger he was tending was drenched in red. Taking the bus represented yet another loss of control, giving themselves up to the hand of fate, or at least asleep-deprived driver. The only reason she went along with it — besides not wanting to fight — was that she wouldn't have to worry about Art tailgating people the whole way in this weather, though of course she didn't say that.

The bus, additionally, was supposed to provide them with cover, as if in gray middle age they weren't invisible enough. From the beginning Art had conceived of the trip as a secret mission, a fantastic last- ditch escape from the snares of their real life, and while Marion refused to believe in the possibility, as at first she'd refused to believe the severity of their situation, she also knew they'd run out of options. The house had been on the market over a year now without a nibble. They would lose it — had already lost it, honestly. The question was, how much would it cost them?

Everything, barring a miracle. Art had already crunched the numbers, and after a necessary period of denial, Marion had conceded them, which was why they were barreling north on I-90, Lake Erie a black void beyond the window.

Art just wanted to get there. The Indians gym bag on his lap with the leering, bucktoothed Chief Wahoo made him nervous, as if the banded packets of twenties fitted inside like bricks were stolen. He wouldn't be able to relax until he'd locked them in the safe, along with the ring he'd managed to keep a secret from Marion. In love he wasn't frugal, despite what she might say. In another mad surrender to extravagance, for seventy-five more dollars a night, he'd reserved one of the bridal suites on the top floor overlooking the Falls, and despite their guaranteed late arrival, he was afraid the front desk might have lost or ignored his request and given their room away.

Beside him, Marion lowered her mystery and massaged her neck as if she had a crick in it.

"I'm starving," she said. "Aren't you hungry?"

It was the only bus of the day, but since he'd made the arrangements he was responsible, just as it was his fault the traffic was bad and the weather ugly, and that night had fallen.

"I'm a little peckish," he seconded. As in everything this weekend, he wanted them to be on the same side, the two of them against the world.

"What time is our reservation?"

"The earliest I could get was seven-thirty."

"What time is it now?"

"Just past six. It's only another twenty miles."

"I should have grabbed a breakfast bar. I still need to iron my dress. I hope they have one."

"They should."

"Should be like a wood bee," she said.

It was a private joke, a mocking appreciation of the slipperiness of even the simplest hope, a nonce catchphrase like so many others lifted from favorite movies or TV shows that served as a rote substitute for conversation and bound them like shut-in twins, each other's best and, most often, only audience. While they'd performed this exchange hundreds of times over the years, en route to graduations, weddings and funerals, and her skepticism was an old routine, delivered lightly, almost without thought, tonight, because he was on a mission to recapture, by one dashing, reckless gesture everything they'd lost, he took it personally. He liked to believe that when he first met her, when she was completely foreign and even more inscrutable, a solemn blonde sociology major freshly graduated from Wooster with granny glasses and a tennis player's shapely legs, a girlish love of James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg, a cedar chest full of pastel sweaters and a shelf crowded with naked neon-haired troll dolls, she had believed in things — luck, goodness, the inexhaustible possibilities of life — and that her disappointment now was a judgment not of the world but of him and their life together. If the room didn't have an iron, he would call down to the front desk and go get it himself if necessary. They might be broke come Monday morning, and filing for divorce, but he would never stop trying to provide for her happiness, as impossible as that was.

From The Odds by Stewart O'Nan. Copyright 2012 by Stewart O'Nan. Excerpted with permission of Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.