A Prayer for the Dying share button
Stewart O'Nan
Format Paperback
Dimensions 5.48 (w) x 8.28 (h) x 0.56 (d)
Pages 208
Publisher Picador
Publication Date May 2009
ISBN 9780312428914
Book ISBN 10 031242891X
About Book

Set just after the Civil War, A Prayer for the Dying is the story of a small Wisconsin town gripped by a mysterious, deadly epidemic, and one man desperate to save it. Torn between his loyalty to his family, his faith in God, and his terror of this vicious disease, Jacob Hansen struggles to preserve his sanity amid the chaos and violence around him.

Winner of The International Horror Guild Awards for Best Novel, 2000


From Barnes & Noble

The Barnes & Noble Review
"What really knocks me out," says Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, "is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you feel like it."

When I finished Stewart O'Nan's A Prayer for the Dying, I did just that. I called him. I told him how jealous I was that he'd been able to write such a large-vision book in such a svelte (190-page) package. Flannery O'Connor was right: A good man is hard to find, when what's meant by "good" is moral and not civil, when it refers to something larger than likability. What O'Nan does in this book — create a convincingly good man and put him in the middle of his story — is among the toughest acts a novelist can perform.

I had, it's true, expected to like the book. Who wouldn't want to read a book with blurbs from writers as disparate as Sue Grafton, Wally Lamb, Chuck Palahnuik, and Colum McCann, a book that's drawn comparisons with an equally disparate range of writers (Poe, Camus, O'Connor, Shirley Jackson, Cormac McCarthy)? In terms of its range of subject matter, of style, of tone, and of technique, O'Nan's body of work seems to me to be unrivaled among North American literary writers ineligible for membership in AARP. (Joyce Carol Oates is 60. Margaret Atwood turns 60 any day now.) Consider, in the order that they were published, O'Nan's five novels:

Snow Angels is set in a small town in Pennsylvania in the winter of 1974. It's the story of a murdered high-school girl, toldinretrospect by a boy she'd babysat, in an amalgam of first-person past tense and third-person present.

The Names of the Dead is set primarily in Ithaca, New York, in 1982, with long stretches set also in Vietnam in 1968, all told from a single third-person perspective, a vet-cum-Wonder Bread truck driver.

The Speed Queen, still my favorite of his books, is O'Nan's only novel set in the present; in it, a born-again woman on death row, in the hours leading up to her execution, speaks into a tape recorder, answering a series of questions in hopes that the rights to her life story can be sold to her favorite writer, Stephen King. It's a slyly brainy book, a rich and affectionate skewering of American junk culture and its attendantly glib packaging of "true" stories. Some readers mistook the book for a product of the culture it satirizes, a charge that (as is also the case with "The Simpsons") is 10 percent undeniable and 90 percent dim-witted.

A World Away takes place during World War II, set in the Hamptons and in San Diego, told in languorous third-person prose that's a book-length tribute to its author's admiration for James Salter.

A Prayer for the Dying is set in a small town in Wisconsin, just after the Civil War, told from the perspective of the town's undertaker/sheriff/pastor in — get this — second-person present tense, that most contemporary of narrative stances. O'Nan manages to suffuse the novel with such nicely pitched 19th-century prose that the mutant first-person perspective that the second-person usually is ("you" instead of "I," in other words, an authorial choice that renders the narrator self-conscious and self-lacerating) comes to seem not only earned but intrinsic to the tale told.

I ask O'Nan if he's consciously tried to write such different books. His first answer is not really, that he mostly was reacting against the book he'd just finished.

For example?

"In The Names of the Dead," he says, "I did a ton of research. I wanted to get everything right because I felt really responsible to the Vietnam vets. It's a long, heavily plotted book with long chapters. After that," he says, laughing, "I wanted to do something fast-paced, wild, irresponsible, with short chapters, an impressionistic, almost plotless book. That's what I did with Dear Stephen King." He's talking about The Speed Queen.

"The title of that book is Dear Stephen King," O'Nan insists "always has been, always will be. That's what it says on my computer discs, that's what it says on the manuscript. The title is the only time his name appears in the book, and I used it as a frame, as a sign welcoming the reader in, signaling that this was a different kind of book from me."

King caught wind of the book; his lawyers threatened to sue. The publisher's lawyers said there was nothing King could win, but that the cost of fighting the charges would be far more than the book itself could ever hope to earn. O'Nan stood up for the title. Both his agent and his editor pressured him to cave. The agent refused to take the book with that title to another house. Even after O'Nan reluctantly agreed to publish the book as The Speed Queen, his paperback publisher for his first two books — Penguin, King's publisher at the time — refused even to make an offer on the book.

The novel's dedication page reads, "For my dear Stephen King."

To pile one absurdity upon another, the book's main murder takes place at a Sonic Drive-in, and though the protagonist speaks lovingly about the food there throughout the book, Sonic's lawyers threatened to sue. They said the book endangered their employees. By the same logic, O'Nan countered, every bank in the world could sue the producers of every movie to feature a bank robbery. But in the paperback edition of the novel, every mention of "Sonic" was changed to "Mach 6."

Disgusted, O'Nan fired his agent and left the publishing house. After two books with Henry Holt, O'Nan's next book will come out with Doubleday, the same house that did The Speed Queen. Everyone O'Nan fought with has since left. "That," says O'Nan, "is publishing for you."

He tells me about the first and, to his mind, still the best novel he ever wrote, "a big sprawling Tolstoyan book" that he has yet to be able to sell. His next book, instead, will be about the Hartford, Connecticut, circus fire of 1944.

C'mon, I say. You have to be doing this consciously. I've never known a writer more determined not to repeat himself.

O'Nan pauses. It's true, he says, that when he was growing up, the writers he most loved were the sort who were both insanely prolific and willing to try anything, writers whose body of work was so large, strange, and fearless, it defied classification. Richard Matheson, for one ("completely open to any kind of thing"). Ray Bradbury, for another ("Bradbury could go to Mars or to small-town Illinois and be great in both"). Today, 37 years old, with a story collection, five remarkably unalike novels, and two anthologies under his belt, O'Nan speaks admiringly of Atwood, "who can do anything," and Oates, "who's not afraid to fail — she's just out to tell a good story."

"After all," says O'Nan, "what's the meaning of the word 'novel'?"

—Mark Winegardner

Andrew Roe

You have to wonder if Stewart O'Nan had the Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns in mind when he decided to set his harrowing and masterful new novel, A Prayer for the Dying, in Friendship, Wis., a sleepy post-Civil War hamlet that undergoes a reckoning of Old Testament proportions. It's a safe bet that bad things are bound to happen in a town called Friendship — very bad things.

And O'Nan holds nothing back. The disasters mount, and after the climactic fury of the closing pages the reader is left breathless and overwhelmed at just how much misery one author can dream up. To his credit, however, O'Nan not only crafts a mesmerizing tale of Gothic terror and tragedy; he also anchors the novel with a resilient humanity and an urgent, eerie beauty.

Like Camus' The Plague, A Prayer for the Dying is part horror story, part biblical fable, part meditation on the human capacity to endure. But where Camus opted for a good old-fashioned pestilence, bubonic plague, O'Nan employs a more mundane diphtheria outbreak as the catalyst for Friendship's chilling descent. As the number of cases escalates and the body count rises, a belated quarantine is imposed. And as if that weren't enough, a raging wildfire forces an evacuation; ultimately the flames engulf Friendship and the surrounding countryside, "the sky violent and backlit, shimmering like some artist's version of hell."

Just how much can one town take — or rather, how much seemingly random suffering can we withstand yet still be able to make a Kierkegaardian leap of faith and accede to the authority of a higher power? That's the spiritual dilemma O'Nan puts to the reader and to his Job-like protagonist, Jacob Hansen, a Civil War veteran who serves as Friendship's sheriff, minister and undertaker. Although Jacob stoically continues his professional duties (caring for the dead, enforcing the quarantine), at home he succumbs to the madness breeding around him: He goes a little Stephen King and takes to dressing up and speaking to the rotting corpses of his baby daughter and his wife. Here, as in the rest of the novel, O'Nan describes the horror with a skillful balance of menace and restraint, countering the gruesomeness of his subject with the rapture of his language and the conviction with which he inhabits Jacob's consciousness. (Imagine a less wordy Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy.)

The author of four previous novels, including The Speed Queen and The Names of the Dead, and one of the writers on Granta's 1996 list of the best young American novelists, O'Nan here solidifies his reputation as a writer of versatility and depth. Apart from a few minor errant steps — the questionable use of the second person, an underdeveloped subplot involving a religious colony — A Prayer for the Dying shudders hauntingly toward its unsettling and inevitable (and satisfying) end. "Lately it seems there are mysteries everywhere," Jacob muses, "as if you've only just opened your eyes." And it's the mystery of faith, O'Nan suggests, that is the greatest mystery of all.

Bob Minzesheimer

This is a sad and chilling novel. It will make no readers happy. It will make them shudder and think and marvel at a writer's creation of an alien world that seems so real.
USA Today

Edward Bryant

...[D]ark, edgy, muscular....This slender novel is as toned as a pro offensive lineman, and far more supple. And does it horrify? I found it more disturbing than anything else I've read this year....Armageddon in cameo. The New Republic as nightmore. Ignore it at your peril.

Entertainment Weekly

...[A] brilliant exploration of evil and solipsism. A small, gruesome literary gem.

Richard Eder

Mr. O'Nan...is a master of voices and the place they resonate from....With a shivery economy of means and a dreadful lavishness of effect, Mr. O'Nan advances the...growth of the epidemic and the disintegration of Jacob....His madness is not all of him; there is a bleak awareness...and this is what makes A Prayer more than a brilliant exercise of darkness.
The New York Times

Sicilia Parra

A cross between Stephen Crane and Stephen King...O'Nan is certainly among the strongest American writers of his generation."
The Washington Post Book World

Publishers Weekly

If there were any doubt of his protean gifts on the basis of his four previous, singularly different novels (A World Away), O'Nan again proves himself a writer of dazzling virtuosity and imagination. This eloquent horror tale/philosophical fable is yet another of his narratives in which character and fate intertwine in a situation of moral gravity. Narrator Jacob Hansen (who speaks to himself in the third person: "You can feel the past oozing up like mud") is a psychologically scarred Civil War veteran. Shortly after the end of the conflict, he has settled with his wife and baby daughter in the tiny prairie town of Friendship, Wis., which is now in the midst of a spectacularly beautiful summer — and a troubling drought. Jacob has three jobs — as undertaker, constable and minister — and a crushing, somewhat eerie sense of responsibility for all of the citizens of Friendship. His feverish piety and his repeated declarations of faith are gradually revealed as thin coverings over a bottomless well of despair. When three deaths from diphtheria occur in quick succession, Jacob convinces his wife not to leave town with the baby, even as he is passively fatalistic about their slim chances of escaping infection. After both Marta and the baby die, Jacob becomes unhinged; he keeps their bodies in the house, dressing, washing and sleeping with them. Outwardly, however, he doggedly continues to go about his duties, rendered even more frantic as the epidemic escalates, a quarantine is belatedly imposed, and many of the townspeople try to steal away during the night. Meanwhile, a wildfire is moving implacably toward the area, and the serene summertime landscape turns into a version of hell as the sky darkens and the air is heavy with ashes. Even as he commits acts of violence under the duress of duty, Jacob muses that this may be the reckoning described in biblical prophecy: the world cleansed by pestilence and fire. Indeed, Jacob is a version of Job, although he never challenges God but questions his own culpability in failing to keep his world whole and peaceful. O'Nan does a superb job of establishing the faint sense of menace that grows into a horrifying nightmare of random destruction and death. Outside of a few red-herring details, the narrative moves with surefooted technique into the realm of sinister gothic mystery. Profoundly unsettling, it requires a leap of faith from the reader that may, like Jacob's faith, fail at times, but it is a mesmerizing story and a brilliant tour de force.

Library Journal

The sleepy agricultural community of Friendship, WI, provides an ideal refuge for Jacob Hansen, a Civil War veteran recovering from the trauma of battle. As if to atone for past sins, Hansen dedicates his life to public service, working as town sheriff, minister, and undertaker. But the quiet life Hansen cherishes is shattered forever when he embalms the corpse of a nameless drifter and inadvertently exposes himself and his neighbors to diphtheria. As sheriff, Hansen quarantines the town and begins burning the homes of those who have died from the disease. The more he tries to help, the worse things become. O'Nan (A World Away, LJ 5/1/98), named one of the best young American novelists by Granta, is a literary chameleon who seems to change his identity with each book. This is a beautifully written, heartbreaking work, modeled on Albert Camus's classic La Peste (1947).
— Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law School Library, Los Angeles

Patrick McGrath

....[T]he brevity and allusiveness that [O'Nan] employs in the creation of Jacob Hansen come as a bracing development....The sense of a mind out of sync with the moral implications of its own experience...permeates A Prayer for the Dying....The manifestations of its narrator's madness are what lend this short novel its Gothic originality and power.
The New York Times Book Review

The Wall Street Journal

Stephen King-esque literary horror...a campfire story with moral depth.

Kirkus Reviews

O'Nan (A World Away) steps back in time and offers us a kind of Old West rendition of the Dance of Death as a diphtheria epidemic threatens to wipe out an entire town. Jacob Hansen is a man of many hats. A Civil War veteran, he has settled down to peacetime routines in Friendship, Wisconsin, where he does triple duty as preacher, sheriff, and mortician. Naturally, he prefers his role as pastor, but lately he's been pretty busy in all three capacities: diphtheria has broken out in the little town, and it's Jake's responsibility to enforce a quarantine in the hope of checking its spread. This means completely cutting off Friendship from the outside world and keeping infected patients more or less boarded up in their own homes to die alone. And while the lawman in Jake sees the necessity of this step, his Christian sentiments rebel against such callousness. On the outskirts of Friendship a revival camp has been pitched by followers of a charismatic preacher named Chase, who has spent the last few months prophesying the imminent end of the world. When the disease infects their camp, Chase is not in the least surprised, nor does he become nonplused when word reaches town that a brushfire is raging out of control and seems headed directly for Friendship. Jake, however, is less willing to see the hand of God in the fire and pestilence surrounding him, especially after his baby daughter Amelia falls ill. "A man who's lost only wants to go home. Don't those souls in Hell," Jake asks, "lift their faces to Heaven?" The real question, though, is whether he and his family will be able to escape, since he finally decides that his fate is not to die in Friendship but to escape it alive— at any cost. Curiously slow and rather obsessively introspective, yet an extremely moving portrayal of faith and grief all the same.