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Summer Books

A story of everyday horror that’s stubbornly religious

By Stewart O’Nan
Henry Holt and Company, 195 pages, $22.00


Booksellers pitch this stubbornly religious novel in the “horror” genre. Is Stewart O’Nan’s A Prayer for the Dying really such an anomaly? Hardly. Because O’Nan, in this book at least, is a horror writer only insofar as Faulkner, for example, was a regional writer or the plagues on Pharaoh’s Egypt are a “horror” story. There is something bigger afoot here.

This is the horror of the everyday, a breath caught in the night, a hateful glint in your lover’s eye, those moments big and small that burst the bolts of common reality and grant us a glimpse into forever, onto the eternal battlefield where good and evil come to grips without knowing which is which. All it takes is a wrong word, a war, an epidemic, a fire from hell.

“It’s astonishing,” O’Nan’s narrator muses, “how quickly things fall apart.”

Jacob Hansen is the narrator. He is preacher, constable and undertaker in the Wisconsin town of Friendship, shepherding the town through its stages of life, as it were, during those unsettled years following the Civil War.

On a cottony summer day, while men work the hot fields, children romp in wood and water and cows twitch their tails, Jacob, in his sheriff’s role, has to deal with a tramp dead in the woods, cause unknown, and a stricken, half-crazed woman from the religious commune on the edge of town, cause unknown.

With the afflicted woman delivered to Doc Guterson, Jacob heads toward home, to his wife and baby daughter, and for a moment the cracked day seems to mend: “In the shade, the day seems easy again, but it’s a trick. There’s a man dead, a woman sick with grief. Still, you think, snap beans for supper.”

That trick, that tension between sickness, death, grief, devastation only just delayed and snap beans for supper, is the engine that drives this novel. And it drives it hard. So hard and so fast that it seems some have missed a large part of what the book is about. Jacob narrates the entire novel with that second person “you.” Some reviewers have found that a disconcerting attempt to draw readers into the story so deeply that Jacob’s voice becomes theirs and the narrator emerges as Everyman.

Maybe so. But there is a simpler, less grandly allegorical and perhaps more plainly human level. The “you” is Jacob talking to himself, watching his way, eying his past, conversing with his conscience. It is Jacob wrestling his angel.

For Jacob is a man who has laid claim to the goodness of things, to the unquenchable freshness of creation no matter how deep down it lives. He came out of a war he never expected to survive determined, whether as sheriff or deacon, to go on reminding his people “of their best instincts, their better selves.” And as undertaker he will love them even in death, because if “there’s anything your jobs have taught you, it’s to take death seriously, give it the same respect as love.”

Yet the war is always with him. He rides a bicycle because the war left him with an aversion to horses. Under one Rebel siege, Union soldiers burrowed into the warm guts of their fresh-killed horses and slept there for protection from enemy shells. They ate their horses from the inside out. What he has learned in the war, the good and the bad, helps to sustain him during the fearsome days that follow in the town of Friendship.

Friendship. It could as well have been called Purgatory. The killer disease turns out to be diphtheria and it spreads like wildfire, a cliché that flames to new life in light of the fire stampeding through the tinder woodlands to the north of town. Which direction it will rage in next is anyone’s guess.

In Friendship, families are quarantined. Soon (perhaps not soon enough) the whole town is quarantined. Anyone trying to enter or leave could be shot. Friendship is under siege from within and without.

And it seems that the only two people with any chance of saving the town are Jacob and Doc Guterson. Jacob’s job is to enforce the quarantine, burn the houses of the dead. He becomes a messenger of death, and the people he loves grow to hate him. He preaches, and no one comes except for the retarded lad who rings the church bell, tolls out the ages of the dead.

It is a test of faith worthy of those Jacob has long preached about: Abraham and Isaac, Job, Lot. And he does not know from one moment to the next if he will stand to it. Earlier on, he is proud of his ability “to both believe and question everything. Secretly you think everyone does, but at some point they give in, surrender to the comfort of certainty. It’s too much trouble, this endless jousting of belief and doubt, too tiring. Finally you suppose it will break you, yet strangely it’s the only thing that keeps you going — though, true, at times you feel unbalanced, even somewhat mad. Crazy Jacob the Undertaker. A holy fool.”

That passage could have come out of the life of almost any saint. But the siege forces Jacob to do things he is sure will damn him. He battles bitterness, wrestles his angel, fights to live his faith even as, day upon day, the siege blasts and burns that faith to a barely pulsating pulp. Will it break him? Will it keep him going?

Whatever the answer, there is no escape. That much O’Nan makes clear in one of the epigraphs he chose for the novel, a quotation from Albert Camus: “There is no escape in a time of plague. We must choose to either love or to hate God.” Which? A Prayer for the Dying begs that question; it is perhaps the deepest horror of a sparely yet powerfully told tale that will keep you up late.

But by the time you’re pushed to ask the question, you will know that you have been somewhere, and something in you will have been purged, burned clean — if only of false hopes, those dreams that do not take into account the end of days.

Tim McCarthy is a fiction writer and journalist living in Littleton, N.H.

National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 1999