In the late 19th-century. Brackett Omensetter and his family, a pregnant wife and two daughters, move from the country into Gilean, a small backwater Ohio town. Omensetter finds work and a place to rent by the river. His landlord, Henry Pimber, becomes nearly obsessed with Omensetter’s personality and his naturalistic, nonchalant lifestyle. After Pimber realizes Omensetter’s disinterest, he commits suicide by hanging himself on the high branches of a white oak, hidden deep in the forest. Jethro Furber, in the bulk of the novel, despises Omensetter and thus sets out to blame Pimber’s disappearance on him. This Omensetter’s Luck review will contain minor SPOILERS.
William H. Gass if nothing else (and, without a doubt, there is that something else) wrote Omensetter’s Luck to reveal how language and words themselves are used to cope, to understand, to think. But, this is not to mean that he literally shows us how words and sentences form our thoughts (that is obvious enough to anyone), instead, he shows how the metaphor, the alliteration, the song and poem, and past masterworks of literature form in our minds to help us perceive and understand the world around us. He is also, of course, engaging and fawning in the beauty of language itself – how these same literary devices not only influence our thoughts and our world, but how they stop us with their sounds and make us ponder the deeper complexity of the letter, word, sentence, and paragraph.
Cruelty brought no relief, as sight did not, and yet he sometimes thought his pain might simply be the pain of his shedding, since it often seemed that he was sloughing like a snake the skins of all his seasons; his white fats and red flesh were lost in a luminous wash. Sunshine lapped at him, rose over him, and soon there were pieces of him drifting off – his head like a hat, legs like logs.
Omensetter’s Luck, pg. 52
It’s an amazing, dense passage. It starts with the letter s still not quite an alliteration, but teasing at one to come with the word sight and sometimes and simply being almost coincidental in their placement. Then that s comes along in full force, gratifying the reader with the quick and close shedding, since, seemed, sloughing, snake, skins, and seasons. The s is abandoned and the reader is then teased with the l, a letter with the same tongue position as the s before it: they read lost, luminous, and lapped, and then it is also seemingly abandoned for the h in his, head, and hat. But Gass comes back again, finalizing what he foreshadowed, the l returns to finish with legs and logs – those s‘s tagged onto the end of the words calling back to the first moments. It is a passage that must be read, read again, and read aloud. The passage brings virtue into the mundanity and cruelty of life, because if a letter can make something so beautiful, why can that thing not be beautiful in and of itself.
And then there is that concept of figurative language, a typical literary device again. Gass gives it the power it deserves, whereas in typical novels it is used as a simple comparison, getting the reader to picture something how the author wants. Gass, though, shows why it is not only useful in a book, but in a life:
It was sorrowful to die. Eternity, for them, had ended. And he would fall, when it came his time, like an unseen leaf, the bud that was the glory of his birth forgot before remembered.
Omensetter’s Luck, pg. 64
Imagine it ending with “when it came his time”. Yes, the following simile is a comparison the same as how many similes are, but it also reveals something to the reader. It answers why “it was sorrowful to die”. It puts us in Pimber’s mind and reveals the so what of the sentiment. The leaf that has helped nourish and beautify the tree and the forest, which has now served its purpose to its dying breath, flutters down to join the rest, remembered maybe for a brief moment and then lost among the dirt. It is sorrowful to die and he will fall, as we see in the coming pages, but this idea is given emotion, power, and meaning, with language itself.
Omensetter’s Luck is not all just a praise of language itself (although he does do that far more than I attempted to explain: the allusion, the concept of a name, the poem, the song), it is also a novel and does what a novel should do. It reveals the inner workings of the individual and society, shows us the complexity of an individual, and gives us something to better understand ourselves and others.
Jethro Furber’s hatred and disgust are pitted upon Omensetter from the apparent moment they meet (or even the moment Furber hears of his presence). This hatred is warped in his own insane mind as he moves through ranting stream-of-conscious dialogues with himself, remembering his own failures and his own inabilities, watching as Omensetter’s life runs perfectly with his luck never running out. This jealousy is something every human can relate to – that hatred which we ourselves fuel with more and more hearsay, irrelevant facts or facts picked up from nowhere that boost our confidence that this hatred is real and rational. But then, as Furber does in the end, we meet that person or finally speak to them. The admission comes that this hatred may be based in fiction. That our own mind created lies or exacerbated faults to cope with our own inadequacy. The person is not so bad; they have similar faults, paranoias, and anxieties; they bring their own oddness and harbor their own jealousies. And this reveals that although our initial hatred may now be shameful, it is human. But so is forgiveness.
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