A Prayer for the Dying

Published April 2, 1999 8:12PM (EST)

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.

By Andrew Roe

Andrew Roe has written for the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.

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