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Small Town Odds by Jason Headley

Small Town Odds

by Jason Headley

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535221,808 (3.79)3



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This is my favorite kind of novel –- about a man who has made a mess of his life and his relationships and who reaches a crossroads that will test him to see if he’s capable of setting things right. Any fans of Nick Hornby, Tom Perrotta or Jonathan Tropper will surely like this novel, and Jason Headley more than holds his own with the masters of this particular kind of comic/dramatic literary fiction.

At the outset, Small Town Odds looks like it’s a going to be a redneck novel as it begins with a scene about an apparent loser who’s found himself in the drunk tank after a night of carousing and fighting in a small West Virginia town. But then we learn our hero, Eric Mercer, is much more than a drunken fool. He was actually a bright young high school student, who was headed to Brown University with scholarships after graduation. He was also a high school football player and after helping his team beat their rival school for the first time in 20 years, he became a local hero. At the time, he was dating a young girl who had moved into town a few years earlier, and whom he turned from a lackluster, indifferent student into college material. She was his first and great love. But she was away camping with her father the night of his big game, and when an older girl who’d been the object of his boyhood crush comes onto him they have a drunken one-night stand that leads to a pregnancy.

So that’s the dilemma of Eric’s life -– he gave up all his dreams for a bigger life to stay in the small West Virginia town he couldn’t wait to leave in order to help raise his daughter. He never got to close to the mother, even all his years of worshipping her from afar, because he felt she trapped him. While he hasn’t done much with his life since, other than working part-time at a funeral parlor and bar, he has been a good father to his daughter, Tess. But on the nights he doesn’t have her, he’s the town hellion, getting into fights to act out his rage over having to give up all his dreams.

The turning point comes when his ex-girlfriend, who is now on the verge of finishing law school, has to come back to town when her father dies. Over the past six years, he’s managed to avoid her any time she’s been home for a visit, but with his job at the funeral parlor he can’t this time.

That sets into motion all the action for the novel – and it’s told with chapters alternating between the present and the past so that we get more details about Eric’s high school heroics, his relationship with the girl who was the great love of his life, and the woman who would become the mother of his child. The pacing of the novel and the gradually unfolding of all the details are done with sheer brilliance.
It’s also a great comic novel. Eric covers his disappointment in himself with sarcasm and his lines are very funny – but they call come across like the things a witty person could actually say – and not the kind of over-the-top witticisms that someone could only come up with if they had a team of comedy writers constantly at their disposal.

This is the kind of novel that had me smiling on every page, it was such a sheer joy to read. All the minor characters are terrific, including the fathers, the girlfriends, and the mothers. Eric’s best friend, the dimwitted but loyal Deke, provides a great comic foil.

What’s particularly masterful is the way the author manages to get us to sympathize with his protagonist through all his conflicts with his friends, parents and the women in his life because the author doesn’t overdo it by always stacking the cards in Eric’s favor. At times Eric is very unlikable, and it’s hard not to be angry with him, as his family and friends surely are, for the choices he makes. But through it all you still understand why he is behaving at times so abysmally and irresponsibly.

The novel makes you want to keep turning the pages as it gets you wondering whether Eric will be able to rekindle things with the great love of his life, or if he’ll ever manage to find any forgiveness and affection in his heart for his daughter’s mother. I couldn’t wait to see what would happen (as much as I didn’t want the novel to end), but then I was blown away at how the author manages to find the ending that was exactly right for the novel. Obviously, I can’t recommend this novel highly enough.

If you end up liking it as much as I did, and are looking for more novels like it, I can recommend any of the works by the authors I mentioned above and also Drew Perry’s This Is Just Exactly Like You and Dallas Hudgens’ 2 novels, The Season of Gene and Drive Like Hell.
I was curious to see what Jason Headley was up to now, and his website makes clear he’s done some scriptwriting and he’s written and directed some very funny short films that are on his Web site. I hope he returns to novel writing again at some point because this debut novel supplies evidence of an immense talent.

( )
  johnluiz | Aug 6, 2013 |
A slice of small town life tale that was very enjoyable. Headley's debut novel is full of characters I felt I have met before to scenes I know I have lived: Friday night high school football, the bonfire the night before the big game, high school parties out in the country, hanging out at the local bar filled with smoke and stale beer. It all felt a little reminiscent. ( )
  timdt | Nov 30, 2008 |
It’s not everyday that a published novelist writes me suggesting that I read their novel, so Jason Headley’s email certainly caught my attention. Headley saw my positive review of a Richard Russo novel and mentioned to me that his debut novel, Small Town Odds, had been favorably compared to Russo’s work. That was enough to get me to read the book.

Small Town Odds documents a week in the life of the twenty-something Eric, a former brainy jock who’s one mistake five years ago forced him to abandon his dream of becoming something and getting out of his tiny rust-belt town. Through Eric’s interactions with his daughter (the product of his one mistake), her mother, his beer-guzzling old pals, his old high school sweetheart, and the regulars down at the bar he tends, Headley paints a pretty convincing picture of a down-on-its-luck community.

While Headley’s email was successful in getting me to buy his book, his mention of Russo also meant that I would be, no doubt unfairly, comparing a first-time author with a Pulitzer Prize-winning one. Small Town Odds does have the same low-key slice-of-small-town-life feel of many of Russo’s books, like Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls. And just like Russo, Headley’s book has only the slightest of plots to move it along. Russo, like Anne Tyler (another favorite of mine), can rely on his excellent writing to push the reader along even when the story moseys along. Headley’s writing skills, however, haven’t reached that point yet. I often had a hard time staying interested in the story. It wasn’t the kind of book that made me want to read it every free minute I had, like a great novel would. Headley also seemed to have trouble writing dialog, to the point that whenever there was conversation between characters the book read more like a script than a novel.

But I think that these are problems that Headley can overcome as he grows as a writer. His story in Small Town Odds is a good one, and before the book is over you can already feel his writing getting better. Headley should take comfort (if he once again stumbles upon my book reviews and sees this one) that I also think that Russo’s first novel, Mohawk, suffered from some of the same problems and showed the same hint of a writer bound to continue telling interesting stories and getting better and better with each one. ( )
  mhgatti | Aug 8, 2007 |
I got this email a couple of weeks ago from an address I didn't recognize and the subject just said: Richard Russo. I was curious, so I read it. Turns out, it was from Jason Headley, an author whose first book has been compared to Russo. He saw one of my reviews of Russo's books (at BookCrossing, I assume), and just wanted to know if I'd give his book a try.

I read the first chapter online. And I listened to the audio clip of him reading from the book. I was intrigued. So, I ordered it. When the book came, I noticed a cover blurb that also compared his writing to Tony Earley's (another favorite of mine), so I went ahead and put it at the top of the 200 or so other books on my to-be-read stack (shelves, really).

I read it over the past two days and really liked it. I even let the kids play an extra hour or two on the Playstation so I could read uninterrupted. After reading the book, I can see why he's compared to Russo- small town, lovable loser-type characters, excellent dialogue, wit- it's all there. And well done too.

If you like Russo or Earley (he's also compared to Haruf, but I can't speak to that as I haven't read any of his books), I'd strongly recommend this one. And I look forward to Headley's next book.

Here's a bit from the book...Eric's ex-girlfriend's father just died, and Eric's feeling a little introspective:

Eric sat and watched him, wondering if his dad ever thought about the meaning of it all. The way he was eating his pork chops didn't make him seem like a terribly introspective man. In fact, Eric had never really known his dad to talk about much beyond the practical, day-to-day things in life. There just never seemed to be a good time to start into heavy, reflective conversation. He watched his dad slather butter on a biscuit, which only made him realize exactly how little time he actually had. His dad was trading their precious time together for the salty taste of buttery biscuits. How many of those had he eaten in his lifetime? How many biscuits had already begun to steal away the days and hours between them? Time was ticking. But none of that time seemed to welcome a proclamation of love from a son to his dad. Unless that time was right now. He began to work the idea around in his head. "I love you, Dad." That was all he had to say. The words would float across the table and carry them both into a new realm of self-awareness. As the idea became more tangible in his mind, he could almost sense that his dad felt its presence. That he knew something grand and profound was about to change the fundamental nature of their relationship for good. His eyes lifted from his plate, but Eric didn't say anything. Instead, he allowed the moment to become full with the idea. When their eyes had locked long enough for the truth between them to be felt, it was his father who spoke first.

"What in the hell are you staring at?" ( )
  jennyo | Mar 28, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0811845362, Hardcover)

Writing with an acute sense of place and character reminiscent of Richard Russo, Jason Headley's first novel tells the hilarious and poignant story of Eric Mercer and Pinely, West Virginia. Enromously likeable and a habitual screw-up, Eric has settled into a sometimes raucous, underachieving life in his one-stoplight hometowna life cobbled together from his part-time activities as bartender at the American Legion, assistant mortician, and father to his beloved 5-year-old daughter, Tess. Tess seems to be the main reason smart, talented, twenty-four-year-old Eric is staying in town, though her mom, a centerfold-quality beauty, would have it otherwise. When Jill, the lost love of his life, returns to Pinely in the same week that the town goes nuts in preparation for the high school football team's Big Game, life unexpectedly shifts into high gear, and Eric must blunder his way toward enlightenmentfast. Authentic, irresistible, and refreshingly unpredictable, Small Town Odds is the debut of a graceful and gifted writer.

Barnes & Noble Best of 2004: Staff Picks

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:01 -0400)

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