You probably know a couple just like Art and Marion Fowler, the long-married, middle-aged pair whose complicated and unexpectedly tender story Stewart O’Nan tells in his novel “The Odds.”
You might even be just like Art and Marion Fowler.
As we meet them, they are financially battered and emotionally scarred, facing the loss of their house in Cleveland and the inevitable end of their lives together.
And yet they have the ability to take one more gamble, a desperate bet that just might save them.
Where better to throw their future on the line than a casino in Niagara Falls, Ont.?
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.
“The Odds,” O’Nan’s 14th novel, the captivating take of a long-married, ordinary couple whose lives are suddenly on the brink, is The Buffalo News Book Club selection for June.
As the Fowlers ride the cut-rate package-deal bus across the border, the single glimmer of hope that they might not slide into foreclosure, bankruptcy and divorce rests in a cheap zippered bag Art holds on his lap, packed with “banded packets of twenties fitted inside like bricks.” Also tucked away is a diamond ring Art has secretly bought – “one more thing they couldn’t afford but which, given their circumstances, would ultimately cost them nothing.” Ever the romantic, Art has bought the ring to replace Marion’s original modest one and plans to surprise her with it “both as a Valentine’s gift and proof that, win or lose, he would always love her.”
Except for a traffic mishap on the ice-slicked road en route to the bridge and the thrilling moment when Art tells the customs agent that they have nothing to declare, the Fowlers’ weekend is prosaic. Art thinks of making love, Marion muses about how needy he is when they are away from home. They eat unfamiliar food and both suffer stomach upsets that put a damper on romance. They trek through the Journey Behind the Falls and visit the revolving restaurant atop the Skylon Tower, where they think they spot Nancy Wilson of the band Heart, whose concert they plan to attend. Through it all, Art searches for the perfect time and way to surprise Marion with the ring.
From their wishes and hope to their regrets and irritations, both Art and Marion are realistically rounded characters, and except for one minor geographic adjustment, their winter visit to Niagara Falls also rings true. “I think I might have moved the Floral Clock, but I don’t know if I took many other liberties,” O’Nan said in a telephone interview. “In terms of what would and would not have been open at the time, there may have been a little slippage, but not too much. In a weird way, it is using some of the tropes and tools of realism, but it is kind of a fable.”
To get that level of realism and recognizability in “The Odds,” as well as his other books, O’Nan begins to write only after copious research and immersion in his characters.
“When I’m working in fiction, it’s all point of view, getting into a character’s head and seeing the world through their eyes, their history and their sensibility, and that’s what I love to do,” he said.
O’Nan said, “This is my job as a fiction writer, to have empathy with a character who is not me and who may not even be like me at all, maybe be someone in regular life I wouldn’t even like or hang around with. But you give yourself license to find out who that person is. I try to get a little closer to them, find out what their world is like. A lot of it is note-taking, notebooking, daydreaming. It’s fun, that’s the great part of it.”
The topics of O’Nan’s novels range across the spectrum of human experience, but mostly focus on ordinary, working-class people. “You see a lot of novelists nowadays who are writing about people who are very, very exceptional, going through these exceptional things, and that doesn’t interest me nearly as much as writing about just regular folks,” he said. “I think the reader can get a little closer to it, because they can say, ‘That’s just like what I’ve been through,’ or ‘That’s just like my family.’ ”
In “The Good Wife,” he writes about a woman whose husband is in prison. “The Names of the Dead” tells the story of a man working with Vietnam veterans and coping with the departure of his wife and child. In “Last Night at the Lobster,” the main character is the manager of a Red Lobster, struggling to keep things functioning on the restaurant’s final night.
“I like to read a lot of different kinds of books, so it makes sense that I would like to write a lot of different kinds of books,” O’Nan said. “Reading feeds writing; there is a direct correlation.”
His omnivorous curiosity leads him into new topics, O’Nan said. “I get on these kicks. I always sort of write toward my ignorance, I use my curiosity and say, ‘I kind of know about this, but I don’t really know about this, let me find out about this.’”
O’Nan has also written two nonfiction books, “The Circus Fire,” a meticulously researched and harrowing story of the tragic Hartford circus fire of 1944, and, with Stephen King, “Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season.”
“The way I write nonfiction is old-school, it’s objective,” said O’Nan. “These things happened to these people in this place, there’s no conjecture, there’s no ‘might have’ involved, I’m not going into people’s points of views. You see that in a lot of nonfiction these days, things are told novelistically, using the power of point of view, which is the novelists’ most powerful weapon, and I think in non-fiction it really doesn’t have a place.”
But even his fiction is rooted in truth, informed by his extensive research. “People are great,” he said. “When you say you are writing something and you ask them a question, they want you to get it right, especially people in certain situations. When I wrote ‘The Good Wife,’ there was a woman whose husband was in prison for 25 years to life, and she said, ‘I hate when they get the details wrong.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know the details, so let’s talk!’
“When you are reading ‘Last Night at the Lobster,’ you learn what it takes to manage a Red Lobster. I think readers love that privileged information. I go out and grab as many sources as I can, put them all together, check them all out and then put them in a sequence so it’s easier to digest, and you get that look behind the scenes. You take all that detail and you couch it in point of view.”
For some research and insights, O’Nan relies on Trudy, his wife of 29 years – “30 years this October. A big one,” he said. “Anytime I have a question about women characters, I go to her,” he said. “I say, ‘Look, you’re getting ready to go to the big dinner. What do you do first, what’s the order of things? Perfume vs. hair vs. jewelry.’”
During his trips to the area, including several visits to Canisius College, most recently for the 2011 Contemporary Writers Series, O’Nan has become a fan of Ted’s Hot Dogs. “I went to Ted’s the first time I visited Canisius, and since then, I have literally driven two and a half hours to go to Ted’s,” he said. “I think I’ve got some Ted’s sauce in the fridge right now.”
O’Nan has a new project finished and is just starting another one. The finished one, titled “West of Sunset,” is historical fiction, about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last years, when he lived in Hollywood. That book, “my first working with real historical figures in a fictional way,” will be published in January.
O’Nan hesitates to share too much about his current writing project. “I’m just starting. I’m gathering all this information about a place I’ve never been, a time I’ve never been, people I’ve never met, so it’s great,” he said. “The new one is also historical, although I don’t think I’ve got real people in it. I won’t talk too much about it, because it’s like a seedling. It could change.”
email: email@example.com O’Nan’s publisher, Penguin Books, has provided The News Book Club with a dozen signed copies of “The Odds,” to be given to Buffalo News readers. To be considered to receive one, send us a letter or email telling us why you would like a copy. Letters should be mailed to Buffalo News Book Club, One News Plaza, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240; send emails to bookclub@buffnews. Be sure to include your mailing address.