A Prayer for the Dying

by Stewart O’Nan

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1771

A gifted young author, Stewart O’Nan has already produced a number of books, including a collection of stories and four novels. The Pittsburgh native and former aerospace engineer has received recognition for his work, having won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize for In the Walled City (1993) and having been named by the literary magazine Granta in 1996 as one of the nation’s best young novelists. A Prayer for the Dying propels him to what may be the top of his craft. It is not that the themes he uses are new: Albert Camus long ago inoculated readers against the horror of contagion; Bret Harte painted the varied hues of bucolic life; many have captured on paper the fortitude and fault of complex protagonists. What is new is that O’Nan has taken the genre of horror directly to the interior of the human person, forcing not only the main character but also the reader to confront the cauldron of the potential for evil that boils within.

The novel opens, innocently enough, with a wide-angle view of a rural American town shortly after the Civil War (1861-1865). The author serves up the scene slowly, allowing the reader to steep gently in the steamy cup of summer. One notices workers in the field, small children and tiny streams giggling their way through a heavy summer day, insects annoying the requisite cows, people moving through their everyday lives. They love, laugh, and argue, kill their kin and tend their tomatoes, perform the pedestrian and not so pedestrian tasks of living and of dying.

Jacob Hansen, Civil War veteran, functions in the tiny community not only as constable and preacher but also as undertaker. He is a person of honor and humility. He is family man, gentle man, model citizen—almost too good to be true. He is devoted to his talented and lovely wife, Marta, and to his young daughter. His life is ordered and controlled, as he takes time for both the pleasures of the flesh and the prayers of faith. He accepts the townsfolk and himself as they are, fully appreciating their good qualities and overlooking their faults. “They’ll all come to you someday,” he remarks to himself, “and they know you’ll do right by them.” Jacob certainly does right for the town. He is the sturdy warp upon which the town weaves its successes and troubles. Its fabric is strong because he is strong; it is orderly and good because he is orderly and good; it keeps the patterns of family and social life intact because he does; it is able to absorb and cope with its problems because in his own psyche he sets the design for how to behave. Friendships are closely woven and richly ornamented; lapses are dealt with in orderly fashion. While readers may not be drawn to like him—a bit too Milquetoast perhaps—they cannot help but admire him.

O’Nan’s plan is to capture interest not so much in the living of the town, but in its dying. The sunny reality of Friendship becomes overcast when a local farmer discovers an itinerant soldier dead beside his campfire, presumably the victim of murder and robbery. As Jacob arrives to claim the body, he marks the physical resemblance of the dead soldier to himself: There is the same battle-worn and dirty uniform, the same tin drinking cup. A shadow from Jacob’s dark history as a soldier in the Civil War passes briefly, but its meaning is made clear to the reader only later in the novel. Jacob’s congruence to the corpse is deeper than physical likeness. The soldier functions...

(This entire section contains 1771 words.)

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as a kind of metaphor for the main character. The corruption of disease in the dead man foreshadows what the author will reveal later about the constable himself. Questions of why Jacob travels by bicycle and not by horse and what really happened in the war linger among the gathering clouds in the reader’s mind.

As constable and undertaker, Jacob has a duty to solve the mystery of the soldier’s death as well as to prepare his corpse for burial. Both tasks are undertaken with equanimity and seriousness. The reader sees the undertaker’s meticulous care, his gentleness, and his almost too-good-to-be-true character. He speaks to the deceased and says a respectful prayer. It is both office and obsession for him to bathe the body, carefully drain the blood and clothe the rigid form, and arrange it in a coffin for burial. Jacob demonstrates the same care here as he had with the bodies of his fallen comrades in battle. Throughout the novel he is portrayed as a man who takes seriously his appointed task and is not to be distracted, even at jeopardy to himself when it becomes clear that there is a contagious disease present.

O’Nan is accurate in his description of the telltale physical signs of contagion. The awful truth is exposed: The soldier has met his demise not through foul play but from diphtheria, which threatens to ravage the entire town. Jacob faces decisions of quarantine and the keeping of the peace, what to do with his own family, and a mounting number of dead to bury. Tragedy heaps upon tragedy, metaphored in the bodies of the deceased. His friend and confidant, the town doctor, succumbs to the disease as do his wife and daughter. To complicate matters, an out-of-control fire is poised to destroy what is left of Friendship. With all the senseless tragedy to cope with, Jacob’s carefully controlled emotional life and the relationships which hold it in place begin to unravel. As he disintegrates personally, the wider human depravity and desperation gripping the town begin to show through the frayed fabric of fear and the breakdown of normal civilized life. The more the breach widens, the more a picture of horror emerges. People are poisoned, shot, and burned alive. Corpses rot, and mayhem grows. Jacob cannot cope. The whole of what supports his stability disintegrates. He stands by helplessly, finally unable to keep up with the multiplication of chaotic events. To preserve a patina of sanity at least in his own home, Jacob digs up his buried daughter, embalms his dead wife, and postures them as if they were still alive. This attempt underlines his mental instability. In the second-person voice, which O’Nan uses throughout the novel, he describes Jacob’s horrific denial: “You give [the baby] a kiss and return her to Marta, get up and check on your cornbread, but at the doorway you turn back to look at them, to admire them sitting there, the ones you love, and count yourself lucky, yes, even blessed, having almost lost them.” It takes a while for the reader to realize the full impact of what has happened. Denial is not the exclusive arena of the protagonist. Flashbacks to the experience of war are interspersed with the unbearable reality that confronts him. The man of equanimity dissolves into a man overcome by evil and despair. In his own words, he is “a murderer. A lover of the dead.”

The full impact of what Jacob’s self-indictment means becomes clear only in the last few pages of the novel, as the puzzling questions which the author has embedded in the story finally are resolved. Readers almost cannot believe what they have read but hasten to retrace their literary steps to see if there is not something that has been missed along the way. No, the horror is exactly as the author has written it. He has led the victim reader into his grisly trap, and it has snapped shut. No escape is possible. In the end, a lingering stench remains of the awful. The full story of the epidemic that has the potential to destroy the town and the horror of the dormant disease that now rages within Jacob himself are revealed.

In a certain sense, O’Nan out-Kings Stephen King. His prose is restrained and compelling, yet at the same time he employs a richness of description that paints a vivid picture. It is perhaps this quality that moves the reader from being a mere bystander to living inside the skin of the main character. As Jacob speaks to himself in the second person, readers sense that they have become the addressees in the macabre monologue. As the main character disintegrates into confusion, the reader does so right along with him. The result is an unsettling feeling that lingers after the book is finally closed.

O’Nan’s work will not go unnoticed. He has taken Michael Lesy’s historical montage, Wisconsin Death Trip (1973), which documents a diphtheria epidemic that occurred in the late 1800’s, and has woven it into a tale of horror not only medical but also psychological. Can a mature person who has life in perspective, who accepts himself and his neighbors as they are and treats them with respect and care, maintain this attitude of faith and stability in the face of disaster? Disaster stories are not new: William Golding visited them in Lord of the Flies (1954). The story of theTitanic has been told in film a number of times. O’Nan’s twist is to insert the question and the horror into the very soul of his protagonist.

The late twentieth century saw its share of senseless violence in the form of massive bombings and shootings, heinous crimes of war on almost every continent, notorious sprees of sequential murder characterized by depravity and unbalanced personalities. Thanks to modern media, the horror of such events is made immediate, and yet the audience is able to turn back from them to the shelter of comfortable lives. These nations, these depraved people are not personally known. These stories may prompt readers to be more protective of their children and more careful with security, but the horror remains at bay. O’Nan will not let that stand. He thrusts the horror right into the midst of every man in Everytown, USA. What is more comforting than “Friendship?” What enhances security more than the warmth of rural America in the idyllic peace that followed the Civil War? What is more unsettling than the ideal man who loses not only those he loves but also hope and faith? This novel addresses the fears within society’s repression and denial, and it will have its effect in bringing them into the light of day.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 95 (January 1, 1999): 793.

Library Journal 124 (February 15, 1999): 184.

National Catholic Reporter 35 (May 7, 1999): 32.

The New York Times Book Review 104 (May 2, 1999): 8.

The New Yorker 75 (May 31, 1999): 112.

Publishers Weekly 246 (January 11, 1999): 52.