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Nathaniel Rich
Odds Against Tomorrow
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-374-22424-0
Publication Date: 04-02-2013
310 Pages; $26.00
Date Reviewed: 06-24-2013
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013

Index:  General Fiction  Science Fiction

In a world of constant uncertainty, we seek confidence. But too often what is certain is dire; not just bad, but catastrophic. Mitchell Zukor embraces catastrophe. He finds it, explores it, brings it into his being and sees the world for what it is — a brief compromise between dueling disasters.

As the protagonist of 'Odds Against Tomorrow', the second novel by Nathaniel Rich, Mitchell Zukor is American stress made real. Our worries, our doubts, our alternate personal histories that imagine everything gone wrong, find a spokesman in Mitchell Zukor. If the news is bad, and by and large, it is, then at least our faithful reporter knows how to spin a hell of a story.

Given that Mitchell 's so prone to worry, it's an irony he never quite twigs to that he's able to parlay his insecurity into a highly-paid profession, working as a quant on Wall Street. Rich surrounds Mitchell with a small cast of very spiky characters, the kind of people you really tend to find in the workplace. Meet Alec Charnobel, the proprietor of Future World, Wall Street's answer to Cassandra, with the added bonus that if you hear the future predicted and ignore the advice you're indemnified against paying for damages incurred because you didn't follow the advice you solicited. At least you tried!

Rich manages to create a sort of bureaucratic nightmare that rings hilariously true. Mitchell's world includes two very intriguing women, Elsa, a long-distance interest, and Jane, a co-worker. These characters are fascinating enough in their own right that each might easily hold down a rather different look at the events in 'Odds Against Tomorrow.'

One of the pleasures of 'Odds Against Tomorrow' is Rich's prose, which is consistently funny. Not surprisingly, Mitchell is a master of self-deprecation, and his wry observations about his own life and New York City, where much of the novel is set, are terrible, true and yes, funny. The corporate shenanigans all seem spot-on, combining a sort of wide-eyed, "What, me worry?" innocence with the mindless ruthlessness of a shark. The presentations and meeting notes and sales pitches ring embarrassingly, but not too embarrassingly true.

Rich's plot here is pretty simple, but he creates a nice arc of tension as we wait for one of his predictions to come pass. When it does, his prose once again comes to his aid, as Rich creates an almost poetic description of disaster on a huge, but still human scale. He captures with precision the surreal feel of an American city undone. It's beautiful and harrowing, and expertly intertwined with Mitchell's own personal arc of conquering self-doubt, or at least, accepting it and making the best of what remains.

'Odds Against Tomorrow' is a superb novel, funny, tense and imaginative. It's not quite science fiction, but it has the day-after-tomorrow feel of the best of the genre, a yearning inevitability that we are going to arrive at a place far too close for comfort to that which we read about in the book.

And here's the great thing about the book. It embraces that discomfort. Disaster, catastrophe, apocalypse, they're all so close they might have already come to pass. Life in our post-apocalyptic wasteland, then, is something of a relief. The worst has come and gone and we're still here. It's time to start building again. It'll all get washed away again, but at least we know we can cope.

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