Authors Stewart O'Nan and Jane McCafferty tackle love and marriage


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In the category of calculated risks, marriage is undoubtedly the ultimate gamble.

Art and Marion Fowler, a Cleveland couple verging on bankruptcy, roll their wedded dice one last time by returning to Niagara Falls, where they honeymooned 30 years ago. Their story unfolds in Stewart O'Nan's 14th novel, "The Odds."

Mr. O'Nan, who lives in Edgewood, will read from "The Odds" on Wednesday at the main Carnegie Library branch in Oakland. Joining him for the reading and a conversation will be his colleague, Carnegie Mellon University English professor Jane McCafferty. She will read from her novel "First You Try Everything," which was published this year by HarperCollins. [See review of both books from the Jan. 29 Post-Gazette.]

Ms. McCafferty's book, set in Pittsburgh, is about Evvie Muldoone's valiant, whacky efforts to save her marriage to Ben. Both authors have been recipients of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize.

In a recent telephone interview, Mr. O'Nan explained why he chose Niagara Falls for the setting of his novel instead of Atlantic City, N.J., which has a boardwalk, or Las Vegas, famed for its neon-lit strip of casinos and hotels.

The constancy of the cascading water, he said, "seemed to say something about love."

The falls are also forces of chaos and danger, which have always attracted thrill seekers.

"There's that whole history of daredevils, which ties in with the aspect of love being a huge chance. You are wagering everything you are with another person. You don't always get to see what their cards are. There's a lot of bluffing," Mr. O'Nan said.

Money, and the lack of it, is a source of major friction between the Fowlers. So, Mr. O'Nan also conceived the story as a fable about America's recent economic downturn.

Art and Marion Fowler hope to score at the roulette table with a betting strategy called the Martingale method.

"It seems a pretty simple strategy, but the problem is that you have to have the money to cover your losses. When you can't cover your losses it's disastrous," the author said, drawing a parallel between the Fowlers and the U.S. financial institutions that verged on collapse because of their recklessness.

Art Fowler may be a math whiz but he has a bad flaw.

"He's terrified to lose. That's why he's a bad gambler. He's put too much thought into it," Mr. O'Nan said.

The author made four trips to Niagara Falls to do research and also visited casinos in New York and Connecticut. He spent a Valentine's Day at the Fallsview Casino in Niagara Falls, which has no windows.

"Here you are next to this wonder of the world and you're staring at a blank wall," Mr. O'Nan said.

The Canadian side of the falls, the author said, "is incredibly tacky and the American side is pristine," devoted to the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area, a national park.

"It's a flip-flop of our national identities. Canadians tend to be respectful and polite and we think of Canada as a very natural place. America -- you think of glitz and consumerism and overdoing things. For once we did it right."

But, he added, "When you're standing in the American park you have to look at the Canadian hotels. You get penalized for your good intentions," which happens in marriage, too.

In the casinos he visited, Asian men often dominated the high stakes rooms. While watching many of the older couples try their luck one day, Mr. O'Nan thought, "That's the last generation that actually got a pension. Here it is, feeding right into the coffers of casinos."

An ardent Pittsburgh Pirates fan, Mr. O'Nan was in the stands Wednesday night when Andrew McCutchen hit a two-run double. A few days later, he was on a plane to Paris because his 2011 novel, "Emily, Alone" was being released in France, a thought that made him smile.

"French people are going to be reading about the Eat'n Park in Edgewood," he said.

The readings begin at 6 p.m. in the International Poetry Room on the second floor of the Carnegie Library main branch in Oakland. The authors also will have a conversation about their work and take questions from the audience.

Audience members are asked to register by calling 412-622-8866 so enough seats are available. Both books will be available for sale and authors will sign them.

books

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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