Omensetter’s Luck is a highly complex and original novel which enchants and mystifies the reader on nearly every page. The novel actually takes the form of three closely related tales, the last two progressively longer than their predecessors, all somehow dealing with the mysterious central figure of the book. The three tales (subdivided into chapters) include “The Triumph of Israbestis Tott,” “The Love and Sorrow of Henry Pimber,” and “The Reverend Jethro Furber’s Change of Heart.” Just as in “The Pedersen Kid,” Gass places his story in the familiar terrain of the Midwest, in Gilean, a small, imaginary community on the Ohio River at the turn of the twentieth century.
The broad details of the story are simple enough: Brackett Omensetter, a dark, burly harness maker, arrives in Gilean during a season of drought, rents a home from Henry Pimber, and takes a job with Mat Watson, the blacksmith. A flood arrives, and the Omensetter house survives in spite of its perilous location near the river. The myth of Omensetter’s luck begins. Omensetter’s reputation as a kind of magician or possessed man (a fiction created by the half-demented and jealous Reverend Furber) is enhanced when he cures Henry Pimber of lockjaw by using a poultice made from ordinary beets. Henry Pimber later hangs himself in a tall oak tree, Omensetter’s recently born son contracts diphtheria, and Omensetter finds Henry’s body at the same time that he refuses to seek a doctor’s help for his son. The novel concludes with the departure of both the Reverend Furber and the Omensetter family. Amos, the Omensetter infant, miraculously survives his diphtheria, and “Omensetter’s luck” is forever established as a kind of catchphrase in the inbred community of Gilean.
Gass employs a number of literary techniques in this novel, another story of ambiguity and misunderstanding. Omensetter’s luck is merely a projection of the town’s superstitions and insecurities. The literary technique that Gass uses most frequently to bring this town and its unique residents to life is the device of the catalog or list of items, a technique used as far back as the ancient poetry of Homer. In Gass’s novel, the catalog is used to show how people literally create reality by piling one piece of data atop another. In Gilean, the world is made up of lists.
Israbestis (“Bessie”) Tott, the ancient postmaster of Gilean, is a kind of living historian, carrying lists of people’s possessions (the opening scene of Omensetter’s Luck is an auction). Henry Pimber will make a detailed list of Omensetter’s possessions on the day of his arrival in town. The Reverend Furber makes lists of flowers, mourners at a funeral, and jars of preserves on a shelf. Names, though, constitute the primary data in this list-making process.
In his famous preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, Gass admits that he collected names as the germs or catalysts for stories, including names such as Jethro Furber, Pelatiah Hall, George Hatsat, and Quartus Graves. It is not surprising, then, to see some of those names (such as Jethro Furber) figure prominently in his later work, nor is it strange to read the catalog of names supplied by the oddly named Israbestis Tott at the beginning of the novel, including May Cobb, Kick Skelton, Hog Bellman, and Madame DuPont Neff. For Gass, the world is made up of words, as suggested by the title of his book of essays, The World Within the Word (1978). Words possess the magical power of invocation: They can call things into being. Names are the most powerful of all words, able to call forth the whole town of Gilean, Ohio.
Brackett Omensetter moves his pregnant wife, Lucy, and their two daughters to Gilean, a late nineteenth century town on the Ohio River. After persuading the blacksmith to hire him as an...
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- Critical Essays