Sunday, April 6, 2014

"Off Course"

Michelle Huneven's first two books, Round Rock and Jamesland, were both New York Times notable books and also finalists for the LA Times Book Award. Her third novel, Blame, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and also a finalist for the LA Times Book Award.

Huneven applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Off Course,  and reported the following:
In Off Course, 28-year-old Cressida Hartley has moved up to her parents’ shabby A frame cabin in the Southern Sierras to finish her dissertation for a PhD in Economics. Instead of getting down to work, she makes friends among the locals, and has an intense, shortlived, affair with the owner of the lodge. By page 69, the affair is over and Cress is at a poker game at her friend DeeDee’s cabin.

DeeDee is a born-again Christian, but before she was “slain in the spirit and bathed in the light,” she’d been a dealer in a Tahoe card room. Divorced with three young sons, she’s barely scraping by; the poker night was her idea to make a little cash. “Surely God would forgive her if she dealt a few more hands to feed her boys.”

The women have cooked a dinner; the guests and poker players include a local contractor and his carpentry crew.

Cress sees that DeeDee’s “dealing was hypnotic, swift; her shuffle a pretty flutter. She was a pro. She didn’t cheat. But she knew the game.”

Two of the carpenters there are brothers, Caleb and Quinn Morrow, a pair of charming, backwoods storytellers. As they play, Quinn tends to lose--only to bet more recklessly. Caleb wins as much as DeeDee does.

“Let’s not invite Caleb next time,” DeeDee says afterwards, when she and Cress are cleaning up.

“He cuts in on my take.”

“Yeah, but Quinn sure bolsters it,” Cress points out, and the two discuss the tendency to double down on losing hands.

“He was on some kind of tilt,” DeeDee says.

“Economists call it loss aversion—when you compound losing like that.”

“Dumb is what I call it,” DeeDee says.

Quinn’s impulse to double down on loss turns out to be a prevailing character trait and a determining factor in the novel But at this point in the book, Cress is more drawn to Caleb—who leaves most of his earnings under his drink glass for DeeDee. “He is adorable,” Cress tells DeeDee. “Too bad he’s married.”

The poker game—the interplay of skill and chance—is a kind of set piece, a fractal of the whole novel: Cress cautiously betting small at the outset, Quinn losing ever more recklessly, Caleb’s greater skill. In a small way, this page demonstrates one of the novel’s main concerns: how economics is personal, and a person’s relationship to money and livelihood lies at the heart of their character.
Learn more about the author and her work at Michelle Huneven's website.

The Page 69 Test: Blame.

--Marshal Zeringue