Some New Material

Sean Michaels bets on comedy

In Sean Michaels’s The Wagers, Theo Potiris is thirty-six, working at his family’s grocery store, Provisions K, and trying to make it as a comedian. When the novel opens, he’s surrounded by family: his two older siblings, their spouses and children, and his mother, Minnie, the family’s matriarch, an almost saintly woman with endless reserves of love for her family and community. Theo’s would-be girlfriend, Lou, has left for a months-long retreat in the Moroccan desert, so he writes her letters and carries out his weekly ritual of placing a bet at the racetrack and, depending on the results, performing stand-up at a local comedy club.

Two events alter this comfortable routine: Minnie dies of a heart attack in her sleep, to be found smiling in her chair. And Hanna, Theo’s precocious twelve-year-old niece, wins $4 million on a bet. This prompts hand-wringing over the store — should they modernize or sell? — and reflections on the nature of luck. Why, Theo wonders, did Minnie and her husband, Theo Sr., never reap the karma they were surely owed? What did Hanna do to conjure such fortune? And why did Theo’s big break never come? Six years earlier, Theo had made it onto Late Night with Conan O’Brien, but his career prospects failed to materialize.

Then this realist world of groceries and affectionately rendered human relationships takes a turn for the magical and off-kilter. There are warnings, of course. At one point, for example, exotic birds appear:

Inappropriate crows with slashes of bright blue plumage, ravens with uncharacteristically beautiful songs, blue jays and cardinals gliding in from the outskirts, crowding bike lanes, squatting on rooftops, battling with sparrows in the splash of public fountains.

Elsewhere, Theo passes by a cart of olives in his store and sees them spinning — “each individually revolving in place, silent as a stone.”

But despite the influx of birds and orbiting olives, one might not be prepared for the shifts to come: Theo gets involved with the Rabbit’s Foot, an algorithm-enabled gambling ring, befriends a mysterious group of luck thieves (luck, it turns out, is a physical sand-like substance), and takes part in spying and international heists.

Some readers will find these very ambitious plot machinations fun, but I kept wishing we could return to Provisions K. Part of the problem with the heist narratives, which take up the majority of the book, is that there’s little tension, few stakes, and barely even the threat of violence, let alone any violence itself. Tonally, The Wagers is so warm and whimsical and wholesome that it was hard to believe anything remotely bad could happen to the characters (with the exception of Minnie’s peaceful death early on). As a result, the details of the heists feel plodding and their resolutions unsatisfyingly convenient.

The Wagers is a rewarding read nonetheless. I’d argue that a fast-paced plot, narrative tension, and finely calibrated criminal escapades are not the main reasons to read Michaels’s work. His strengths lie in his ability to convey a sense of wonder and enthusiasm for his subjects. At one point, Lou presents Theo with a hastily assembled bouquet, which “almost made him cry.” The emotion is a result of “not just the gesture but the bouquet itself: pink and paper-thin lisianthus, sturdy green sage, whirling sapphire dahlias. An arrangement of flowers that seemed to say something about him, and her, and the ties between them.” Even the novel’s potential villains are treated with empathy, the initial caricature giving way to a tender recognition of their humanity.

Take Daniel Merrett Leys, a writer who becomes one of the luck thieves’ marks after winning multiple prestigious literary prizes and then the lottery. (Writing such a character is an interesting choice, particularly as Michaels, too, has experienced enormous acclaim. His 2014 bestseller, Us Conductors, won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and was shortlisted for a number of other distinguished awards.) Despite his critical success and wealth, Merrett Leys is depicted as deeply self-conscious. How he prepares for an interview helps illustrate the point:

He agonized over which magazine(s) to leave on the coffee table in the living room. (The London Review of Books and Largo Home, he decided.) He dithered over the music in the stereo. . . . He spilled some almonds on a kitchen counter, reconsidered, cleaned them up, set out a bowl instead. He put away the London Review and Largo Home and replaced them with Thrasher.

It would be easy to scorn him, see his calculated attempts to present himself favourably as desperate and pathetic. Yet the novel’s omniscient narrator probes deeper, revealing his very human doubts and frailties. Reflecting on his craft and successes, Merrett Leys thinks,

The only thing worse than someone hating his book was for someone to lie about loving it — and the doubt this sowed, sick and swirling. . . . Their words (their tone, each syllable’s subtlest micro-inflection) reversed through the bundle of his brainstem, souring reality. Perhaps his novel wasn’t bad, but he knew each one of its failings.

That we do manage to sympathize with Merrett Leys — obscenely wealthy, cloistered in his luxurious, highly secure compound, with actual luck at his disposal — speaks to Michaels’s skill in drawing out complexities.

Many of The Wagers’ characters may rely on (actual) luck, but the novel itself is powered by charm. The setting does some of this work. Certain details may be intentionally off, but it’s clear to any Montrealer (or former one, in my case) that Theo lives in a semi-fictional city unmistakably inspired by the real one, with “the untidy beauty of its oldest parts, the stalwart trees and stubborn shopfronts, the cast-iron stairways, bundled denizens, [and] pitted roads.” I could recognize Provisions K, the Potiris family store, as a stand-in for Supermarché PA on Avenue du Parc even before learning that Michaels actually launched The Wagers there in late September. Michaels has populated his city with real-life Montreal writers (Jacob Wren, Mike Steeves), transposed its Molotov-­cocktail-­throwing gangsters into the playful “cheese mafia,” and effectively, lovingly captured its slightly shabby allure.

Reading Michaels’s prose is also pleasurable: he’s clearly charmed by language, delighting in its possibilities, sprinkling similes here and indulging in long lists there. “The starlings,” he writes, “looked like a strange quick smoke, the profits of a spell.” The sounds of the grocery store, a wonderland of sensory detail, are described as “creaks and jangles, crashing tills, shuffling boots, plastic thuds, whorling spools of produce bags, strangers’ cotton kissing cotton as they brushed by in narrow aisles.”

The book’s characters engage in banter that falls somewhere between Lorrie Moore’s writing, with its comedic precision, and the scripted artifice of TV shows like Fleabag, and his forays into the world of comedy allow him to offer insights into humour and the process of artistic creation more broadly.

At one point, Theo concludes that “the best jokes are jokes that nobody else can tell.” Michaels has evident gifts: a reverent attention to language, a keen understanding of rhythm and dialogue, a knack for creating compelling characters. He has written lyrical historical fiction and now a star-dusted comic caper, and while I’m not convinced either has allowed for the full expression of his talent, I look forward to his continued exploration of genre and the refinement of his unique aesthetic sensibility.