Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Prayer for the Dying

A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan was originally published in 1999. My hardcover copy has 195 pages. Stewart O'Nan is truly one remarkable, gifted writer. O'Nan's decision to write it as Jacob Hansen in the second person was quite effective and unique. For a slim volume, it makes a huge impact. A Prayer for the Dying couldn't be more different from the other two novels I've read by O'Nan, but it is stunning. If there is a Stewart O'Nan fan club, I believe it is time for me to send in my membership. This is simply an incredible book. Rating 5

Synopsis from cover:
Dark, poetic, and chilling, A Prayer for the Dying asks if it's possible to be a good man in a time of madness.
Set in leafy Friendship, Wisconsin, just after the Civil War, A Prayer for the Dying opens harmlessly on a languid summer day; only slowly do events reveal themselves as sinister, bloom gently into a shared nightmare, as one neighbor after another succumbs to a creeping, always fatal disease. Our sole witness to this epidemic is Jacob Hansen, Friendship's sheriff, undertaker, and pastor, a man with a large heart and conscience. As the disease engulfs his town, breeding hysteria, Jacob must find a humane way to save hose he loves, short of calling up a full quarantine and boarding up the sick in their houses. And what of the tramps slipping nightly through the tinder dry woods, and the spiritualists on the edge of town with their charismatic leaders, Chase. Who will bury the dead properly, if not Jacob?
A Prayer for the Dying is a rare and scary book, Stewart O'Nan's most astounding achievement yet, a sunlit Gothic painted in shimmering prose that darkens and disturbs your complacency the further you go into it until - as in the best Poe and Flannery O'Connor - there is no going back.

"High summer and Friendship's quiet." first sentence

"The undertaking's easy; being a constable is hard." pg. 4

"That's the one thing you'll admit is strange about you: you don't like to be around horses anymore. It's understandable, having had to eat them during the siege, to burrow into their warm, dead guts for cover. but you don't like to talk about that, or only to Marta, who'd never let it slip." pg. 5-6

"You know Marta worries when you make too much of your faith, so you've taken to praying in your office when the cell's empty, the stone cold and hard on your knees." pg. 17

"You're hoping Doc will back off and say he could be mistaken, that the woman's symptoms could be anything. Diptheria kills quick, that's one thing you know." pg. 27

"You don't know how to argue; it's a weakness in you. After the war you lost the will to fight, the interest in getting your way in little things." pg. 28

"You already know. He means people who let their faith take the place of their reason, people who believe this world is just a prelude to another, more glorious life. He means people like you." pg. 42

"Sometimes you envy the Hermit's life, the simplicity of speaking only to ducks, water, sky. What a comfort it must be not to care, to be ignorant of your neighbor's worries. Insane, true, but a relief." pg. 43

"...what will that do to your faith? Is it so weak that the sorrows of this world can destroy it with one puff? You hope not, but maybe so. Maybe so." pg. 74


Wendy said...

Thanks for the great review on this book. I am beginning to think that O'Nan is the most overlooked author out there. I read his book Songs for the Missing (here is my review)earlier in the year and loved it...He is definitely on my radar these days.

Lori L said...

Songs for the Missing is now on my wish list. In fact, I'm going to be looking for every book of O'Nan's I can find.