Cover image for A prayer for the dying : a novel
A prayer for the dying : a novel
O'Nan, Stewart, 1961-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Holt, 1999.
Physical Description:
195 pages ; 20 cm
Format :


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X Adult Fiction Central Library
X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
X Adult Fiction Open Shelf

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A Prayer for the Dying is Stewart O'Nan's most astounding achievement yet, a sunlit Gothic painted in shimmering prose that darkens the further you go into it, until, as in the best Poe and Flannery O'Connor, there is no turning back.Set in a leafy Wisconsin town 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, blooming 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. As the disease engulfs the town, Jacob must find a humane way to govern, as well as take care of his wife and baby daughter, though there seems no way to save those he loves short of calling a full quarantine and boarding up the sick in their houses. And what of the tramps slipping nightly through the tinder-dry woods, the spiritualists from the city camped on the edge of town with their charismatic leader Chase? Who-will bury the dead properly, if not Jacob?Dark, poetic, and chilling, A Prayer for the Dying asks if it's possible to be a good man in a time of madness. It confirms what some readers have known all along: Stewart O'Nan is not merely one of the best young novelists in America, but one of the finest novelists of our time.

Author Notes

Stewart O'Nan was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on February 4, 1961. He received a B. S. from Boston University in 1983 and received a M. F. A. in fiction from Cornell University in 1992. Before becoming a writer, he worked as a test engineer for Grumman Aerospace from 1984 to 1988.

He has written several novels including The Speed Queen, A Prayer for the Dying, Last Night at the Lobster, The Circus Fire, and Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season. In the Walled City won the 1993 Due Heinz Literature Prize; Snow Angels won the 1993 Pirates Alley William Faulkner Prize; and The Names of the Dead won the 1996 Oklahoma Book Award. Snow Angels was made into a feature film in 2007. In 1996, he was listed as one of Granta's best young American novelists.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

O'Nan, following his previous novel, the somewhat stolid A World Away [BKL My 1 98], which was set on the home front during World War II, is more surefooted as a historical novelist in his latest work, set in a small town in Wisconsin six years after the Civil War. Jacob Hansen wears two important hats in the little community of Friendship: sheriff and undertaker. It falls to him in his sheriff capacity to deal with the most horrendous crisis the citizenry has yet faced. The dead body of an ex-soldier is found at the edge of town; it is discovered by the local physician that the cause of death was diphtheria, a highly contagious and fatal disease that could spread quickly throughout the population. Sheriff Hansen must figure out how to contain the disease without causing widespread panic. Hansen, who truly loves Friendship and the part he plays in its community life, maintains his health, but his wife and daughter succumb. Practical questions surface and are difficult for him to answer: Is there a connection between the spread of the disease and a religious colony just outside of town? Eventually, a quarantine is necessary. Then a prairie fire threatens the town, and Hansen must rescue the individuals who are not ill by getting them to safety. A sad ending does not detract from the novel's effectiveness as a sharp, taut study of the goodness of the human heart in the face of the darkness that life can present. It's an amazing novel, at once highly realistic yet at the same time poetically metaphoric. O'Nan's readership grows with each book, and his fans will find this one his best to date. --Brad Hooper

Publisher's Weekly Review

If there were any doubt of his protean gifts on the basis of his four previous, singularly different novels (A World Away, etc.), 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. Author tour. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

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). Recommended for most fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/98]‘Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch. Lib., Los Angeles (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.