A Prayer for the Dying, Stewart O'Nan, Henry Holt and Company, 1999, 195 pp
I am catching up on some Stewart O'Nan fiction in preparation for reviewing his newest novel. Many years ago I read his first novel, Snow Angels, and was fairly creeped out by how dark it was. Creeped out in a good way because I like dark stories. Apparently O'Nan had further darkness to explore. A Prayer for the Dying is his fifth novel and is so short that it could be called a novella. But it is so packed full of emotion, events, and psychological turmoil that it works as a full length novel with all unnecessary fat trimmed away.
Jacob Hansen is a Civil War survivor, now back home in Friendship, Wisconsin. He is married to his true love and they have recently had a child. Because Friendship is such a small town, Jacob is the sheriff, the undertaker as well as the pastor of a Protestant church. Each of these jobs become important and burdensome because overnight, Friendship is invaded by diphtheria, an enemy that kills more thoroughly and rapidly than any war ever could.
When Jacob was slowly starving to death in the depths of the war, he made a bargain with God: to be an upright man and serve Him if he survived. Well, he survived though his wounds were mostly emotional and mental. Now as he goes about his duties, burying corpses, trying to protect his wife and child, and enforcing a quarantine, he learns the true nature of the bargain he made. More dramatically he comes to know his own true nature.
O'Nan raises the bar on dark psychological fiction by writing the entire novel in the second person, present tense, injecting the reader into Jacob's mind and heart. As the disease progresses inexorably through the town he becomes a bit more unhinged, hour by hour, day by day, desperately trying to do what is right while mostly everything is going wrong.
Movies are good. I saw the movie made from Snow Angels and it was effective. But O'Nan's writing is hundreds of times more effective as he shows you the dark, nasty insides of men's minds; the crippling, emotional cost of dealing with life's hardships; and the power of love to light the darkness but also to kill all hope when it is lost.
This author get heaps of praise from other writers and rightly so. I doubt that his books are strong sellers. He writes about what we all experience in our deepest most private moments but do our best to hide from ourselves and others.
(A Prayer for the Dying is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)