THE WAGERS by Sean Michaels


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A quiet part-time comedian leaves his family grocery business to try his luck at what turn out to be two bizarre pursuits in this thoughtful, offbeat novel.

Every Friday, Theo Potiris goes to the racetrack and places a bet to see how his luck is holding before deciding whether or not he should take the stand-up stage or go home to his apartment above his family’s old supermarket, Provisions K. This unprepossessing Greek Jewish Quebecois on the brink of middle age is the protagonist of Michaels’ (Us Conductors, 2014) second novel. With his girlfriend, Lou, on a retreat in a distant desert, Theo emerges from his cocoon into two odd worlds of adventure. Prompted by his mother’s death and his young niece's massive win while under his care at the racetrack, Theo finds his gateway to novelty is a trio of Italian French-Canadian sisters and a weather-obsessed statistician named Matisse. Matisse works for one of the sisters, who has built up an empire founded on a computer algorithm that makes money betting that it can predict the future better than the bookies. After a short spell working with them, Theo leaves to join the other two sisters, who are part of a criminal gang that steals luck worldwide. Luck looks like and is forensically indistinguishable from sand but makes the owner lucky. Despite these characters of slippery panglobal provenance, a paranoid millionaire, a mysterious billionaire, and some thrilling action in Taiwan, Michaels maintains a calm, quiet tone for Theo that’s “neither panicky nor proud.” Theo mentions the work of Paul Auster, and this book feels like an homage to The Music of Chance—with its strange biographical tangents and theme of fortune. We see glimpses of the comedy, but sadly, though Michaels was himself an occasional onstage comedian, we never quite see the philosophical insight he claims for Theo’s comedy. Our hero is, in the end, inscrutable in ways that are psychologically convincing but narratively unsatisfying.

Constantly fascinating but never quite remarkable.

Pub Date: Jan. 21st, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-947793-63-7
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Tin House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 2019


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