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William H. Gass: Omensetter’s Luck

Gass’ first novel is set in Gilean, a small town in Ohio, in the 1890s. Brackett Omensetter arrives in the town one day, with his pregnant wife and two daughters. As the title implies, he has luck or he is in tune with the universe. Things seem to go right for him. But others don’t really like this. We first hear from Israbestis Tott, after the Omensetters have moved away. Tott is an unreliable narrator so it is difficult to know whether what he is saying is accurate. Henry Pimber, Omensetter’s landlord, does not like it, as it is against the natural order of things. While initially he accepts Omensetter, particularly when is able to cure Pimber’s lockjaw, his concern grows and eventually leads him to kill himself.

The Rev. Jethro Furber particularly doesn’t like it. He is made of sterner stuff than Pimber. A significant part of the book is taken up with Furber’s views on Omensetter. Furber’s strong views, told in a bold and dense section, with a great love for language (Furber makes it clear that he loves words), is that Omensetter is clearly evil. When he comes to realise both that this is not the case and what his own role, as pastor, should be, it is too late. The three narrators all have one thing in common. All are isolated. Tott is considered a fool and is tolerated but no more. Pimber is married to a woman he does not love and who is barren, while Furber is out of touch with his congregation, concerned only with his beautifully polished sermons.

The influence of William Faulkner is immediately apparent in this novel but it is still a fine, original work. Gass’ superb use of language has been rightly praised by many critics and, while it is not necessarily an easy read, it is well worth the effort.

Publishing history

First published 1966 by New American Library