The curse of O'Nan
In his new novel, Stewart O'Nan explores the landscape of
by Chris Wright
A PRAYER FOR THE DYING, by Stewart O'Nan. Holt, 208 pages,
A novelist friend of mine, upon hearing that I was about to interview Stewart
O'Nan, asked me to relay a question. "Why," she wanted to know, "do you write
so many damn books?" And it's a good question. Since 1993, the 38-year-old
Pittsburgh native (and Connecticut resident) has published four novels and one
book of short stories, all to high critical acclaim. Indeed, during the past
six years, O'Nan has shown himself to be not only prolific, but also one of
America's most thoughtful and versatile young novelists -- a fact
rubber-stamped a few years back when the literary magazine Granta placed
him on its much-heralded Top 40 list of young American writers.
A large part of O'Nan's appeal is in the mind-boggling variety of his subject
matter. From plumbing the tormented psyche of a Vietnam vet to spinning the
self-serving memoirs of a female death-row inmate, O'Nan has proved himself
willing to explore a wide range of psychological, historical, and geographical
landscapes. In his latest novel, A Prayer for the Dying, O'Nan takes us
to late-19th-century rural Wisconsin, where a town named Friendship finds
itself on the wrong end of an Old Testament double whammy: pestilence and
Stopping by the Phoenix offices for an interview en route to the Red
Sox season opener, O'Nan agrees that his literature has a tendency to roam. "I
have a short attention span," he deadpans. "I'm interested in all these
different people. It's like when you see someone on the street, you want to
follow them home."
Not that you'd really want to follow any of O'Nan's characters anywhere.
"Typically," he says, "I write about people who are completely fucked up." Then
again, we'd all be a little fraught if we were in a Stewart O'Nan novel.
Regardless of the disparity of their circumstances, all of O'Nan's characters
are pretty much in the same spot: wedged between hope and despair, having the
life squeezed out of them.
Jacob Hansen, the unlucky protagonist of A Prayer for the Dying, is
certainly no exception. Described by O'Nan as a "Christian existential horror
book," A Prayer for the Dying is O'Nan's grimmest to date, putting Jacob
through a series of trials that make the suffering visited upon Job seem like a
tough episode of America's Funniest Home Videos.
As O'Nan puts it, "It's not the feel-good comedy of the year."
The story opens blithely enough:
High summer and Friendship's quiet. The men tend the shimmering fields.
Children tramp the woods, wade the creeks, sound the cool
ponds. . . . Cows twitch and flick.
The "you" refers to Jacob (the book is narrated in the second person). An
earnest, God-fearing Civil War veteran, Jacob is an almost absurdly good man.
He not only serves as Friendship's constable, preacher, and undertaker, but
also manages to be an attentive husband and doting father in his spare time. Of
course, ministering to a community's spiritual, judicial, and corporal needs is
challenging enough at the best of times. In the worst of times, it's downright
ravaging. As Jacob is about to discover.
You like it like this, the bright, languid days.
A stranger's corpse is discovered in the woods behind a local farm,
"belly-down beside the smudge of a dead campfire." Having just tended to that
emergency, Jacob finds another body, this time a woman, also lying face down.
She's not dead, but mad, raving about having seen Jesus. Both people, it turns
out, are afflicted with diphtheria, an infectious and fatal disease. These
first two cases establish a terrible momentum that continues throughout the
book. Before long, the good people of Friendship are dropping like flies -- and
the flies are having a field day.
O'Nan says A Prayer for the Dying was inspired by Michael Lesy's
historical montage Wisconsin Death Trip, which documented a real-life
diphtheria epidemic that swept through the region in the 1890s. "I ran into the
book in a library somewhere," he says. "I read it and had this weird, queasy
reaction to it, that gothic feeling of being terrified of and attracted by
something at the same time. I thought, if I could get that feeling into a book,
into a piece of prose, that would be amazing."
He got it, all right. Though A Prayer for the Dying invites obvious
comparisons to Albert Camus's The Plague, O'Nan insists his book owes a
far heavier debt to George Romero's schlock-horror film The Night of the
Living Dead, which, he says, "is about isolation, about people boarded up
in houses, about crazy people wandering a landscape that is empty and
The book certainly contains more than its fair share of gothic horror. O'Nan
seems to delight in offering up descriptions of Jacob's gory undertaking duties
(a creepiness heightened by the fact that he insists on chatting with the
corpses while he nicks their ankles and drains them of their blood). He
describes the effects of diphtheria with a poet's scrutiny ("eyes sunken in
violet pits, cheeks creased and hollow"). And, as the disease spreads, a
horrible madness grips the town. People are shot, poisoned, burned alive. There
are intimations of necrophilia and cannibalism.
The really disturbing aspect of the book, though, is in watching Jacob's
saintly commitment to his duties contort into a kind of mania. "You'll do
what's best for everyone," he says in the early days of the outbreak. But, as
Jacob discovers, doing the right thing is by no means a clear-cut proposition.
(In an awful ironic twist, Jacob's compulsive desire to observe proper care for
the dead is instrumental in spreading the disease.)
Inevitably, Jacob goes off his rocker. When his own family appears to have
been stricken, he even loses his grasp on his faith. Meanwhile, evidence mounts
that Jacob's motives are more personal than spiritual anyway, and we
start to question his faith. This is part of O'Nan's brilliance: he forces us
into the same moral snarls as his characters, and then leaves us to work our
own way out of them.
Moral complexity notwithstanding, O'Nan also has an ability to create
situations of near-farcical dreadfulness. He pushes the macabre to the edge of
comedy, and then holds it there. What next? you think, and before you're
finished formulating the question another very bad thing is batting you over
the head. And that's what makes for a good horror novel, says O'Nan.
As in the best horror novels, though, much of what's really frightening about
A Prayer for the Dying lies in what's left unsaid. One of the creepiest
moments of the book, for instance, occurs during a scene of supposed domestic
After dinner Marta plays the melodeon and the two of you sing. She falls off
the stool but you prop her up, set her foot on the pedals, her fingers on the
keys, help her find middle C. Jesus Our Redeemer. He Will Overcome.
Amelia plays on the floor with her cornhusk doll.
Marta and Amelia are Jacob's wife and child, and we're pretty sure by this
point that they're dead. But the confirmation is horrible for its
insidiousness, the realization made all the more eerie because it creeps up on
us, reveals itself to us in this awful vision of madness.
The book is equally murky in the many philosophical questions it raises.
Faith and responsibility, good and evil, despair and salvation -- it's not
what's revealed about these things that makes their presence so powerful, it's
what we're left to figure out for ourselves. At one point during one of his
many self-inquisitions, Jacob asks:
Who are you angry with?
In this instance, as with the rest of the book, the second-person narrative
adds an air of immediacy and universality, and takes Jacob's search for answers
to the reader. After all, you are confused, too. There's a gauze of
indeterminacy hanging over the entire novel, and for this reason it's a
challenging, even difficult book to read.
No? Who else is there? Is this the devil's work?
It must be, you think, but uncertainly. It must be, but you're
"Good," says O'Nan. Though he'd like us to be entertained by his books, he
also wants us to face up to questions we might otherwise "shrug off." In this,
he likens A Prayer for the Dying to an "abusive but loving parent: half
the time it's cooing to you and patting you on the back, and the other half
it's beating the crap out of you."
In meting out misery and pain to his beleaguered characters, though, O'Nan
more often takes on the role of vengeful deity than abusive parent.
"Oh yeah," O'Nan says, "there is that placement of the novelist as God. You
worry about that, but you try to be as generous as possible. If you're treating
your characters as little game pieces, you would never have anything of
consequence. Emotionally, you have to be very close to your characters. You
have to love them."
But if O'Nan loves the characters in A Prayer for the Dying, he's got a
funny way of showing it. At one point, as Jacob crafts a casket for his
daughter, he asks, "Will there be anything harder than this?" And there most
certainly will be. Toward the end of the book, as the diphtheria epidemic
spreads like wildfire, O'Nan introduces a real wildfire into the proceedings.
Having gone from bad to worse, the lot of Friendship's inhabitants goes to
absolute worst, and the dutiful Jacob is reduced to the role of helpless
Ultimately, O'Nan says, the question underlying all of his work is "When do
you give up?" Which, he concedes, "is a horrible question to ask, but it's a
question that a lot of people have to face." Then, echoing Hamlet's famous
soliloquy on the subject, he adds, "That's the question."
Just don't expect O'Nan to supply the answer.
Chris Wright is a staff writer for the Boston Phoenix.