Scotiabank Giller-winner Sean Michaels' The Wagers is a deeply satisfying, wildly entertaining story of long odds, magical heists and the dizzying gamble of life. Where does luck come from? What is it worth? And how much of it do you need to be happy?
After fifteen years of open mics, aspiring comedian Theo Poitiris is still waiting for his big break--bicycling to the comedy club at night, stacking plums and cheeses at his family's grand and ramshackle supermarket by day. But when his girlfriend wanders halfway around the world searching for enlightenment, leaving him behind, and bolts from the blue strike both his mother and his young neice, Theo decides he's had enough of waiting for his luck to change.
He turns away from the price of milk and the telling of funny stories into a shabby, beautiful, imaginary Montreal, where peacocks strut on street corners and gamblers bet on sunny days. In search of something bold and new, Theo goes to work for a mysterious association of sports-obsessed mathematicians, The Rabbit's Foot, which is turning probability into riches, and soon stumblies into the plots and plans of the vigilante No Name Gang, which steals luck from those who have taken more than their fair share.
Bursting with sheer story-telling pleasure and stylish prose, The Wagers carries you along on wave after wave of invention--a literary motorcycle chase that soon has you wondering about the randomness of good fortune and all the ways we choose to wage our lives.
About the author
- Short-listed, Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction
SEAN MICHAELS is a novelist, short-story writer and critic. Born in Stirling, Scotland, and raised in Ottawa, he eventually settled in Montreal, where he founded the pioneering music blog Said the Gramophone. His award-winning writing has also appeared in The Observer, McSweeney's, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Maisonneuve, and The Globe and Mail. Sean's debut novel, Us Conductors, received the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the QWF Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and was nominated for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, the Kirkus Prize for Fiction, the International DUBLIN Literary Award, and (in translation) the Prix des libraires de Quebec. He enjoys cold water, warm madeleines and songs with colours in their titles.
Excerpt: The Wagers (by (author) Sean Michaels)
Hours stuttered past, fast then slow then fast again. Theo caught some sets and neglected others, drifting around the club. “You gonna do the one about the flooded basement?” somebody asked.“Nah,” Theo said. A pretty wunderkind got up, her jokes like puzzle boxes. A big lug from the suburbs, with gags about his wife and their Doberman pinschers. Toward midnight, Theo watched a woman named Emmy, one of the regulars, from a corner by thebar. He stood with one knee against a panel, felt the hot whirring of the dishwasher on the other side. She told jokes about life and just absolutely destroyed. You don’t watch the comic just beforeyou perform, not if they’re any good, and Theo should have been reviewing his material, getting juiced up. Anyway he had already heard this stuff: Emmy’s set had been refined over the course of entire months, seasons, line by line, pause by pause, tag by tag, so well-practised that Theo knew the moments she’d take a sip from her jack and ginger. Yet he laughed along with all the others, he couldn’t help it, even as his chest filled with dread, and when Emmy was finished Lucien warbled into the microphone: “Now put your ’ands together for Theo Potiris.”
Three or four tables immediately got up to leave. Nothing personal:this was the late show, it was late. When Theo arrived at the front of the room, he tried not to see the empty chairs. Brightly, bravely, he said, “If it’s all right with you, I’m gonna tell some jokes now.”
He opened with something about how nobody eats the shells of peanuts. It didn’t really work. He tried something about his brother’s suits, then about how much it physically hurt to actually write an entire letter by hand. The laughs were patchy. He considered turning that corner where you call attention to thelack of laughs but that was a last resort, it risked everything; instead he talked about the bride and the bachelorettes, even though onlysome of them had been there for the early show. “Tonight was a night she won’t remember for the rest of her life,” he said. This cruelty didn’t feel right. Maybe he should be talking about shame, or drunkenness, or a wedding morning hangover. He tried imagining out loud the bride’s vows, and then the splendour of the ceremony,half mocking, half not. He wished the bride well: “When you hold your husband on his death bed, I hope you remember getting kicked out of a crummy comedy club.” There was somethingdeeply funny in all of this, he was certain, and maybe he would find it if he kept talking.
Theo stepped over to the stool where he had put down his drink. The audience was silent. Theo raised the glass to his lips andin his peripheral vision he could see Severin and Emmy standingby the bar, wearing tolerant expressions. Theo tilted the gin andtonic until the ice cubes slid to touch his teeth. He should stop, histime was up. He should keep going, he should say the one about the flooded basement. But he couldn’t bear to tell a joke theseother comics had already heard; he couldn’t bear to quit the stage,a comedian merely humoured. He began talking about his gambling.His Friday night, his ritual, biking to the track and laying a wager. “Every week, finally, I find out if I’m a winner or a loser. It’s nothing but math. I’m a winner or a loser, nothing in between.”
“How many of you gamble?” he asked them. A few people clapped. “Suckers,” he said, to a bigger laugh. “We’re all suckers.I’m so tired of losing.”
He wiped his mouth with the inside of his wrist. “On Friday I went to the race course. I bet on a horse called Expiry Date.” He looked out. “How much does it cost to keep a racehorse? Fifty thousand a year? Daily steel-cut oats and Kobe steak, regular massages. Trainers and agents and nutritionists. Fifty thousand easy. And what do they decide to call it? Expiry Date.” He shook his head. “‘What’s something that’s vaguely threatening in a slow-stakes a way as possible? That’s what we’ll call our horse.’
“Anyway, Expiry Date and I won thirty dollars. I’m a winner,I thought. I’m inarguably a winner.” He glanced at his shoes, still flecked with onion. “And then later that night my mother died.”
They laughed, but then a silence fell. They weren’t sure they had heard him right.
He went on. His tone was steady. “I mean it,” he said. He explainedthat he had gone home and discovered that his mother hadpassed away. “Her eyes were closed, like she was making a wish.”
Somebody laughed then —a sharp, almost wretched sound.Theo ran a hand through the tangle of his hair. He talked a little about the paramedics, the family argument about who should ride with her corpse to the hospital. He talked about the way the ambulance was the same size as one of the grocery store’s delivery trucks, how he had found himself wondering how many boxes of groceries could fit inside. He talked about preparing for the memorial,the quarrel about low-fat versus regular cream cheese at the reception, which flavours of cupcakes to buy. “After screaming at each other for eighty-five minutes we agreed that the flavour we would ask for was ‘a variety.’"
"Then there was the funeral, which is a high-pressure situation for a comic,” Theo said. He fingered the mic. “Speaking of —were any of you there?” He craned his neck. “Can I get a ‘woo’ if you were at my mother’s funeral?”
“No? No regulars?” He smiled, looked at the floor. “Well, you missed a great quiche.” A breath came out of him as if he had cut himself, but his eyes didn’t leave the spot on the floor. “You know what? I killed,” he said. “My set —Imean, my eulogy,” he was still smiling that tight smile, “it was sad. It was happy. It was upsetting and also funny. People cried or laughed. They were smiling through tears. I could see it: my family, her friends. I could see it, I’m not exaggerating, right in front of me, on people’s faces. I could feel it myself, in myself, like a bright light. Killing at a funeral. The best set of my life. For once everything landed."
At the end of the bar, a cash register began printing a receipt.“So what do you do with that?” Theo asked. “At your mother’smemorial, on the worst day of your life, thinking: ‘This wouldcrush on YouTube.’ An original eulogy album. Live at the Funeral. AllDownhill From Here. Or maybe, yeah: Unplugged.”He gazed at the empty space above the chairs.“Anyway, that’s my time,” he said, and he put down the mic.“Everybody put your ’ands together for Theo Potiris!” Lucienleapt onto the stage. “Theo Potiris, our little ray of sunshine!” Theoslipped backstage as the crowd applauded, trying not to hear it,trying not to hear how much or how little, how eager or how hollow,trying not to hear it and also trying to hear it, ravenous forevery separate touch of palm to palm.
• • • • • •
He listened to the next set from the dressing room. At the break,Emmy appeared. “Good set,” she told him.
She led him back to his friends at the bar, bought him another G & T. Severin put his arms around him. “Sorry, man,” he whispered in his ear.
Fuckin’ Stevie nudged up beside them. “That scraping sound was the whole crowd slitting their wrists.”
“Not a bad way to go,” Theo said.
“You know, I’ve always said that being funny is overrated,”Stevie went on. “We don’t get enough grief-stricken comedy.”
“Fuck off,” said Emmy.
Theo looked around at the empty tables cluttered with glasses,the small clusters of audience members staring at him. He nodded to the comics then headed for the back door, leaning his fullweight into the push bar of the emergency exit. Outside was a clear sky, a few stars. Cool air fluttered over him. Annette’s Camry was parked crooked beside the crumbling brick wall. What was that? he thought. He walked past the car, to the street, and lowered himself to the curb. It was what it was, he told himself. You didn’t have anything to lose.
Six years ago, Theo talked to Max Paumgarten on the telephone. Shortly there after, before any piece had run, BUNCHA HACKS announced it was folding. Paumgarten had been hired as a staff writer at the New Yorker. When Theo heard the news he felt at first a kind of pride —as if he too had graduated, come of age —and later a sense of anticipation —that Paumgarten might bring him with him somehow, into the pages of his new home. But Theo never heard from him again. Instead, Paumgarten wrote about pop stars,drone racers, an Indiana mayor. Theo’s window closed. The dream subsided. It was what it was.
An owl made an owl sound, out of nowhere. Theo turned, startled,as the hoot reverberated. The shadows at the roof met in an X and he couldn’t distinguish anything besides the place where an owl might be. Theo stared at the X-like space. He swallowed a little more of his gin.
“I’m sorry about your mom,” said a voice.
She was sitting not far away, a silhouetted figure with herarms resting loosely on her knees. On the same curb, among thesame shadows, facing out into the street.
“You were funny.”
He heard a sound he mistook for a lighter flicking open, but he realized the woman was simply scraping a stone along the pavement. She was maybe his age. He couldn’t really see her face,just jeans, boots, the matte folds of a windbreaker, her hair.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Have you heard of the Rabbit’s Foot?”
“No. Is it another club?”
“It’s an association.”
“What kind of association?”
“Sounds unseemly,” he said.
He heard her smile. “In fact you would not believe how seemly.Resolutely seemly. They’re methodical, humourless, et cetera.”
“However: winners,” she said.
“Ah. Lucky for them.”
She shook her head. “Luck has nothing to do with it. What’s the opposite of an inveterate gambler? A veterate one? The association’s all mathematicians, actuaries, programmers. Systems analysts. Algorithm people. They deconstruct horse-racing and football and tennis and whatever, boil it down to its parts. Thenbuild it up again —movements into numbers into data, as many contests as they can, so the math gets a chance to work. And they can earn their fortune.”
Theo squinted at her.
“You said you were tired of losing bets, right? You could joint hem.”
He gave a ragged laugh. “The Rabbit’s Foot doesn’t lose?”
She shrugged. “That’s their whole thing: figuring out how not to.”
“Huh,” he said.
“Yeah —‘Huh.’” She tilted her head at him. “You know how sometimes you’ll look at something, like a box of matches, and you’ll think, ‘Someone’s getting rich off these things.’ And someone is getting rich off matches. Off everything. That’s how it is with Mitsou. So many people making bets, all around the world,and someone’s making a mint. It’s her.”
He wondered now if she was pulling his leg. “Mitsou?”
“My sister,” she said.
“This is her company?”
“She doesn’t cut you in?”
“She and I run on different tracks.” The woman brought a knee to her chest. “Maybe when my luck runs out.”
After a pause, in the same tone of voice, she said, “You were really funny.”
He looked away. “Thanks.”
“Don’t act so humble. You were!”
“That’s the job,” he said.
“Did your mom used to come to see you?”
A feeling had gradually been opening up around them, betweenthem, an unguarded air. He could say anything into it.
“Now and then,” he said.
“Did she like it?”
“She liked me. She thought the other comics were too dirty.She said, ‘They talk too lightly about sex.’”
The woman laughed.
“Are you a comic?” he asked.
“No.”He remembered the owl that had made its owl sound and wondered if it would speak again into this space, filling in the silence.
She said, “Sometimes you look at the world and it’s either laugh or cry, right?”
“I try to ignore it.”
“Things I can’t change.”
“Is that what Zen is?” he said.
“You’re asking the wrong person,” she said. “It sounds weird but sometimes I like to go to things alone. I always have, even when I’ve been in relationships. Movies, galleries, even concerts.Plays.”
“There’s less social pressure?”
“It’s just easier to remember what you like. What you’re experiencing.You don’t need to worry about anybody else.”
“I’m a worrier,” he admitted.
“We need to stop worrying. Go dancing.”
He tried to imagine her dancing.
“So you came alone.”
“And was it a success?”
“It would have been more fun with a friend.” She laughed, and Theo laughed too.
Then he said, “Maybe I should find a new gig. Something I can count on.”
“I’ll call up the Rabbit’s Foot. Ask Mitsou for a job. Tell her I know her sister.”
“Better not to use my name.”
“I don’t know your name.”
“Tell them you want to be a processor. They’re always looking for processors. Maybe it will give you some material.”
“Isn’t that what comedians want? Material?”
“I don’t know what I want any more,” Theo said. “Except I want to catch a break.”
He found himself telling her, “I was on Conan once. Six years ago. Dressing room, fruit platter, network TV. I thought that was it. Next stop, sitcom. Fame or infamy. My favourite writer called me for an interview. ‘What’s next for you?’ he asked. ‘Everything,’I said. I thought it was going to happen to me like it happened to other people, that I just needed to . . . How did you put it? Give the math a chance to work out?”
“Reversion to the mean,” she said.
“But the interview never ran. The jackpot never came.”
“Maybe their computer crashed.”
“He’s just taking his time,” Theo said. “Waiting for me to reach my season.”
“Like a wine.”
“Like a really funny wine.”
“I’m Simone.” She leaned over to him, extended her hand.
He took it. “Theo.”
Shortlisted for the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction
One of CBC Books’s 20 Canadian books to read in September
One of Toronto Star’s 35 books to read in Fall 2019
One of NOW’s 17 must-read books for Fall 2019
“The Wagers is a surprising, delightful book. Full of humour and adventure, the novel brims with rich detail and a generous outlook on life. . . . The Wagers captures the Montreal we live in, with all its improbable and otherworldly charms.” —Saleema Nawaz, author of Songs for the End of the World
“This novel is like a literary fireworks display, an explosion of joke-filled energy that manages to be a novel of ideas, but one delivered as if it were a caper story. . . . I had more fun reading this book than I have with any other novel for a very long time.” —Antanas Sileika, The Globe and Mail
“It might look like we’re being set up for a Marc Maron narrative: a brainy but unfocused comic scuffling on the margins, increasingly desperate, only to score an against-the-odds success in middle age. . . . Suffice to say that the idea of luck plays a central part, and that it takes the novel into speculative realms that will require a leap of faith on the reader’s part. It’s a leap most will be happy to make, such is the author’s deft hand and delightfully skewed world view.” —Montreal Gazette
“‘I like books that are like trap doors—you plunge into another tale and the book you think you’re reading abruptly becomes another book,’ Michaels says. The Wagers does this twice, before leaving a smile on your face and a Rihanna song stuck in your head. All we can hope for is the one-two-step of life, art and luck will work out so well for each of us, too.” —The Coast (Halifax)
“[A] thoughtful, offbeat novel. . . . Constantly fascinating.” —Kirkus Reviews
“The Wagers is a work of great poise and maturity. But it’s also just plain fun, gloriously unafraid to play and laugh and throw jokes out into the room to see whether they land.” —Montreal Review of Books
“What starts out as a fairly realistic drama eventually morphs into a surreal caper. . . . Some readers will be overwhelmed by the whimsy of the story, while others will enjoy Michaels’s unflagging imagination.” —Publishers Weekly