The chapter contains another hypothesis for Kathy’s disappearance, resuming the morning after Kathy went ashore with her boat, as described in Chapter 18. Around dawn, the narrator speculates, Kathy uses her Girl Scout training to build a small fire, using a pile of twigs and sparks from the boat’s starter cord. Using the heat, she dries her clothing. She’s hungry, but not too hungry.
As the hypothesis that Kathy flees from John goes on, we learn more and more about Kathy. She’s an optimist, and resourceful, despite her lack of familiarity with nature.
Kathy gets back in her boat and refuels it, using the remainder of the gasoline left in the can. Although she has almost no experience with nature, she will use a map left in the boat to navigate her way back to the cottage. She looks at the map and at the sun, and tries to determine which direction is which. The exercise calms her. As she plans her route, she thinks about building a huge casino on the lake, and remembers playing the slots in Las Vegas during a campaign visit she made with John and Tony. She enjoys casinos because there is always a jackpot in the near future: in short, casinos are the “golden future.”
Kathy is an inventive and ambitious woman. Despite her apparent lack of interest in politics, she seems like she’d make an excellent politician (perhaps she’d be more interested in the issues than John is). Kathy’s attraction to casinos is both inspiring and disturbing. On one hand, it’s nice to see that Kathy is an optimist; on the other, it’s depressing that Kathy can’t find joy in the present, particularly because casinos nearly always win in the end.
Kathy begins riding the boat. She notices a small island and pictures a huge casino, shaped like a spaceship, or a penis. She then remembers what else happened during her last visit to Las Vegas with John and Tony. She and Tony sat at a blackjack table, where they played for hours. Around midnight, John found them sitting there, and touched Kathy on her back; Kathy remembers his grip being “stiff.” He suggests that Kathy leave the table, but she refuses—instead, she bets more money, and wins.
Kathy’s imagination might hint that she’s starved for sex, since she hasn’t made love to John. It could also hint that she’s no longer attracted to John, and has other lovers. In Kathy’s flashback (a flashback within a hypothetical!), she and John clearly have a strained relationship. John seems like a cynic for wanting Kathy to leave and spoiling her fun.
At the casino, John says, half-jokingly, that he’d have to “bomb the place” to get Kathy to leave the table. Kathy replies that this “doesn’t seem like you.” Tony observes that Kathy has lots of “yous,” but then tells John to forget it; John says that he has, but Kathy notices that he isn’t touching her back anymore. Kathy and Tony play for a few more minutes, and then cash out. Kathy has won more than 800 dollars.
Kathy’s comment that John wouldn’t bomb a building seems like an ironic foreshadowing of John’s later disgrace. Tony, perceptive as ever, notes that Kathy has many “yous.” This could either mean that Kathy has had affairs, or that John has multiple facets to his personality. Both of these could be true.
After they cash out, Kathy and Tony sit alone at a bar, drinking. Kathy complains to Tony that John has ruined her evening. The feeling of luck and winning, far better than the feeling of having money itself, is gone—John broke “the spell.” Tony counters that the feeling is the best part of gambling. He also points out that John isn’t interested in luck; he’s a magician, meaning that he’s only interested in the certainty of rigging the decks. As Tony speaks, Kathy notices his eyes, quickly glancing around the room, and his odd clothing, which makes him seem even fatter than he is.
Tony, John, and Kathy all make their personalities known in this scene. Tony, the realist, prefers the money. Kathy, the optimist, prefers the sensation of potentially winning. John, the powerful politician and magician, doesn’t like to be a player at all; he wants to be in control. Tony seems to have a crush on Kathy, hence his uncomfortable behavior. Kathy seems vaguely attracted to him, even though she’s a little turned off by his clothing and physique.
Tony and Kathy continue to talk at the bar. Tony points out that John’s career is a lot like his performances as a magician. He performs magic, and part of the charm of the trick is that everyone knows it’s a trick. The same is true of politics: everyone knows that politics is a dirty business and full of intrigue. He says he hopes that John is successful in the campaign, and will end up taking Tony to Washington with him. Kathy suggests that Tony go solo instead. Tony rejects this possibility, since he’s fat and unattractive, a “waddler.” He explains that unattractive people know their place. For the rest of the night, he and Kathy try to recover the “glow” of the casino, with little success. As Kathy rides the boat, she remembers other details of the night, such as the way Tony’s eyes kept looking at her shoulders and back.
Throughout the novel, Tony has been much more insightful about John than Kathy, or even John himself. It’s Tony, for instance, who recognizes that John lies to himself as well as to other people. Here, it’s Tony who senses that people—including Kathy herself—accept politicians like John because they know that, on some level, they’re being lied to. In this section, we’re given some insight into the reasons for Tony’s perceptiveness. Perhaps his unattractive appearance and general lack of a suave “mask” to his personality has made him more attuned to the “masks” other people craft themselves. In short, Tony recognizes other people’s lies because he doesn’t lie to himself.
Back in Lake of the Woods, Kathy feels cold, and wishes she were back on the island with her fire. She thinks about John, and decides that she still loves him very much. She remembers the “glow” that they had when they were younger and happier. As she remembers, she notices a small group of islands in the distance.
In this section, it’s as if the pleasant memories of John “create” the prospect of land in the distance. While this may seem a little unusual—even magical—O’Brien has already made it clear that perception is, to a large degree, reality: in other words, people only believe the things they want to believe. Here, Kathy seems to see what she wants to see.
Kathy remembers what else happened the night she and Tony got drinks in Las Vegas. Tony told her that she had to think of luck as an “open window”—if the window was stuck, she had to “unstick herself.” Kathy told Tony that she’d tried to unstick herself once before, but she didn’t tell him the name of the man she was thinking of, Harmon, and she didn’t mention Loon Point, either. Instead, she simply told Tony that unsticking was messy and uncomfortable. She asked Tony if he wanted to know more, and he said he didn’t. Tony asked Kathy if John found out about Kathy’s infidelity; Kathy replied that he found out some, but not everything—she added that John would be gone if she was unfaithful again.
Tony, for all his cynicism and realism, shows himself to be more of an idealist even than Kathy. Where Kathy settles for John, and finds his mystery attractive, Tony wants Kathy to free herself from her obligations and loyalties and try something new, though it’s important to note that Tony is clearly flirting with Kathy and might be hoping that he would be the new thing she would try. Kathy’s response to Tony’s question is ambiguous—we don’t know how she felt about Harmon, the dentist, or how their affair ended.
Tony and Kathy spent more time gambling, and then went up to their hotel rooms. Tony said he’d kiss her if he weren’t so fat, and in response, Kathy kissed him—Tony said that he’d live forever.
Tony and Kathy’s friendship is almost touching—they seem more sincere with one another than John and Kathy. This explains why, when Tony defects to another campaign, Kathy is devastated—she’s lost her friend.
Kathy walked into her hotel room and saw John, clearly pretending to sleep. Kathy thought about what she’d accomplished at the casino. She won 700 dollars, but more importantly, she’d felt happiness. In the past, she sensed, she had allowed John to define for her what happiness is. She realized then that nothing she does with John anymore gives her the same sense of happiness she felt years ago at a bar, when she dared John to steal liquor from the bartender.
For all her optimism, Kathy can’t escape the fact that she’s less happy than she was when she and John were younger. While Kathy wants to look ahead to the future, she finds herself ill-equipped to deal with John, who’s repressing his past. As a result, she can’t help but mourn the vanished past, as John occasionally does when he contemplates his marriage.
As Kathy watched John lying in bed, seemingly asleep, she heard him yell out. She did not touch him, knowing that nothing could ever help him. Instead, she went back to the casino and played more blackjack, feeling the same glowing happiness as before. Kathy remembers all of this as she rides her boat toward the islands in the distance—or at least she might have been remembering it, assuming that this is what happened to her on the day after she disappeared.
Despite her differences from John, Kathy suffers from the same problem—she doesn’t try to address John’s problems, but instead reaches an uneasy truce with them. Thus, she leaves John to sleep instead of offering him her comfort and kindness.