Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan

O'Nan is one of the least-known great writers of our time; he writes mostly heartbreaking novels like this one and The Speed Queen that get glowing reviews and amazing quotes, but don't seem to be read all that widely.

I can understand some of that; O'Nan doesn't write happy stories, and no one would want a straight diet of his novels. But if you don't read Stewart O'Nan, you're missing some of the finest novels that contemporary American fiction has to offer -- they might not be about happy events, generally, or particularly escapist, but they tell stories you'll never forget, with people who are as real as the thoughts in your own head.

A Prayer for the Dying, for example, is a historical novel, set soon after the Civil War in Friendship, Wisconsin, as a diptheria epidemic marches through the countryside. Jacob Hansen -- the sheriff, undertaker, and pastor of small Friendship -- is the central character. And, as the title and O'Nan's reputation suggests, he watches a lot of people die around him.

O'Nan tells this story quickly -- the book is just under two hundred pages long -- and with surgical precision, without wasting a word. It's written in a haunting second person, dragging the reader headlong into Jacob's world, and his head. It's not a nice novel, or a sweet novel, or a comforting one. But it is beautiful in its starkness, and packs a devastating punch.

1 comment:

KatG said...

One of my favorite novels ever. I'm planning on reading and owning the entire O'Nan cannon. He does have an advocate in Stephen King, with whom he wrote a best-selling non-fiction book on baseball. His novel Last Night at the Lobster got a lot of attention and I think did better in sales, but he is seriously underappreciated and always inventive.

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