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The Boston Phoenix The Curse of O'Nan

In his new novel, Stewart O'Nan explores the landscape of affliction.

By Chris Wright

MAY 10, 1999: 

A PRAYER FOR THE DYING, by Stewart O'Nan. Holt, 208 pages, $22.

A novelist friend of mine, upon hearing that I was about to interview Stewart O'Nan, asked me to relay a question. "Why," she wanted to know, "do you write so many damn books?" And it's a good question. Since 1993, the 38-year-old Pittsburgh native (and Connecticut resident) has published four novels and one book of short stories, all to high critical acclaim. Indeed, during the past six years, O'Nan has shown himself to be not only prolific, but also one of America's most thoughtful and versatile young novelists -- a fact rubber-stamped a few years back when the literary magazine Granta placed him on its much-heralded Top 40 list of young American writers.

A large part of O'Nan's appeal is in the mind-boggling variety of his subject matter. From plumbing the tormented psyche of a Vietnam vet to spinning the self-serving memoirs of a female death-row inmate, O'Nan has proved himself willing to explore a wide range of psychological, historical, and geographical landscapes. In his latest novel, A Prayer for the Dying, O'Nan takes us to late-19th-century rural Wisconsin, where a town named Friendship finds itself on the wrong end of an Old Testament double whammy: pestilence and fire.

Stopping by the Phoenix offices for an interview en route to the Red Sox season opener, O'Nan agrees that his literature has a tendency to roam. "I have a short attention span," he deadpans. "I'm interested in all these different people. It's like when you see someone on the street, you want to follow them home."

Not that you'd really want to follow any of O'Nan's characters anywhere. "Typically," he says, "I write about people who are completely fucked up." Then again, we'd all be a little fraught if we were in a Stewart O'Nan novel. Regardless of the disparity of their circumstances, all of O'Nan's characters are pretty much in the same spot: wedged between hope and despair, having the life squeezed out of them.

Jacob Hansen, the unlucky protagonist of A Prayer for the Dying, is certainly no exception. Described by O'Nan as a "Christian existential horror book," A Prayer for the Dying is O'Nan's grimmest to date, putting Jacob through a series of trials that make the suffering visited upon Job seem like a tough episode of America's Funniest Home Videos.

As O'Nan puts it, "It's not the feel-good comedy of the year."

The story opens blithely enough:

High summer and Friendship's quiet. The men tend the shimmering fields. Children tramp the woods, wade the creeks, sound the cool ponds. . . . Cows twitch and flick.

You like it like this, the bright, languid days.

The "you" refers to Jacob (the book is narrated in the second person). An earnest, God-fearing Civil War veteran, Jacob is an almost absurdly good man. He not only serves as Friendship's constable, preacher, and undertaker, but also manages to be an attentive husband and doting father in his spare time. Of course, ministering to a community's spiritual, judicial, and corporal needs is challenging enough at the best of times. In the worst of times, it's downright ravaging. As Jacob is about to discover.

A stranger's corpse is discovered in the woods behind a local farm, "belly-down beside the smudge of a dead campfire." Having just tended to that emergency, Jacob finds another body, this time a woman, also lying face down. She's not dead, but mad, raving about having seen Jesus. Both people, it turns out, are afflicted with diphtheria, an infectious and fatal disease. These first two cases establish a terrible momentum that continues throughout the book. Before long, the good people of Friendship are dropping like flies -- and the flies are having a field day.

O'Nan says A Prayer for the Dying was inspired by Michael Lesy's historical montage Wisconsin Death Trip, which documented a real-life diphtheria epidemic that swept through the region in the 1890s. "I ran into the book in a library somewhere," he says. "I read it and had this weird, queasy reaction to it, that gothic feeling of being terrified of and attracted by something at the same time. I thought, if I could get that feeling into a book, into a piece of prose, that would be amazing."

He got it, all right. Though A Prayer for the Dying invites obvious comparisons to Albert Camus's The Plague, O'Nan insists his book owes a far heavier debt to George Romero's schlock-horror film The Night of the Living Dead, which, he says, "is about isolation, about people boarded up in houses, about crazy people wandering a landscape that is empty and beautiful."

The book certainly contains more than its fair share of gothic horror. O'Nan seems to delight in offering up descriptions of Jacob's gory undertaking duties (a creepiness heightened by the fact that he insists on chatting with the corpses while he nicks their ankles and drains them of their blood). He describes the effects of diphtheria with a poet's scrutiny ("eyes sunken in violet pits, cheeks creased and hollow"). And, as the disease spreads, a horrible madness grips the town. People are shot, poisoned, burned alive. There are intimations of necrophilia and cannibalism.

The really disturbing aspect of the book, though, is in watching Jacob's saintly commitment to his duties contort into a kind of mania. "You'll do what's best for everyone," he says in the early days of the outbreak. But, as Jacob discovers, doing the right thing is by no means a clear-cut proposition. (In an awful ironic twist, Jacob's compulsive desire to observe proper care for the dead is instrumental in spreading the disease.)

Inevitably, Jacob goes off his rocker. When his own family appears to have been stricken, he even loses his grasp on his faith. Meanwhile, evidence mounts that Jacob's motives are more personal than spiritual anyway, and we start to question his faith. This is part of O'Nan's brilliance: he forces us into the same moral snarls as his characters, and then leaves us to work our own way out of them.

Moral complexity notwithstanding, O'Nan also has an ability to create situations of near-farcical dreadfulness. He pushes the macabre to the edge of comedy, and then holds it there. What next? you think, and before you're finished formulating the question another very bad thing is batting you over the head. And that's what makes for a good horror novel, says O'Nan.

As in the best horror novels, though, much of what's really frightening about A Prayer for the Dying lies in what's left unsaid. One of the creepiest moments of the book, for instance, occurs during a scene of supposed domestic bliss:

After dinner Marta plays the melodeon and the two of you sing. She falls off the stool but you prop her up, set her foot on the pedals, her fingers on the keys, help her find middle C. Jesus Our Redeemer. He Will Overcome. Amelia plays on the floor with her cornhusk doll.

Marta and Amelia are Jacob's wife and child, and we're pretty sure by this point that they're dead. But the confirmation is horrible for its insidiousness, the realization made all the more eerie because it creeps up on us, reveals itself to us in this awful vision of madness.

The book is equally murky in the many philosophical questions it raises. Faith and responsibility, good and evil, despair and salvation -- it's not what's revealed about these things that makes their presence so powerful, it's what we're left to figure out for ourselves. At one point during one of his many self-inquisitions, Jacob asks:

Who are you angry with?

Not God.

No? Who else is there? Is this the devil's work?

It must be, you think, but uncertainly. It must be, but you're confused.

In this instance, as with the rest of the book, the second-person narrative adds an air of immediacy and universality, and takes Jacob's search for answers to the reader. After all, you are confused, too. There's a gauze of indeterminacy hanging over the entire novel, and for this reason it's a challenging, even difficult book to read.

"Good," says O'Nan. Though he'd like us to be entertained by his books, he also wants us to face up to questions we might otherwise "shrug off." In this, he likens A Prayer for the Dying to an "abusive but loving parent: half the time it's cooing to you and patting you on the back, and the other half it's beating the crap out of you."

In meting out misery and pain to his beleaguered characters, though, O'Nan more often takes on the role of vengeful deity than abusive parent.

"Oh yeah," O'Nan says, "there is that placement of the novelist as God. You worry about that, but you try to be as generous as possible. If you're treating your characters as little game pieces, you would never have anything of consequence. Emotionally, you have to be very close to your characters. You have to love them."

But if O'Nan loves the characters in A Prayer for the Dying, he's got a funny way of showing it. At one point, as Jacob crafts a casket for his daughter, he asks, "Will there be anything harder than this?" And there most certainly will be. Toward the end of the book, as the diphtheria epidemic spreads like wildfire, O'Nan introduces a real wildfire into the proceedings. Having gone from bad to worse, the lot of Friendship's inhabitants goes to absolute worst, and the dutiful Jacob is reduced to the role of helpless onlooker.

Ultimately, O'Nan says, the question underlying all of his work is "When do you give up?" Which, he concedes, "is a horrible question to ask, but it's a question that a lot of people have to face." Then, echoing Hamlet's famous soliloquy on the subject, he adds, "That's the question."

Just don't expect O'Nan to supply the answer.


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