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A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan
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A Prayer for the Dying (1999)

by Stewart O'Nan

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Wow. This one packed a punch. I'm keeping this one, as it's worth a re-read someday.

This book is a rarity -- a book written in second person, present tense, that actually works. In fact, it flowed so naturally, I was halfway through the first chapter before I noticed, and even after that it didn't distract me. It was appropriate, as it eventually wasn't evident whether anyone would survive to tell the story past-tense.

Jacob is the constable of Friendship, Wisconsin, shortly after the Civil War. He is also the local undertaker, as well as the town preacher. All these callings will come into play, for better or for worse, after a dead soldier and a severely ill woman from a religious commune are found. Doc's verdict is that they are victims of diphtheria. Soon, the disease is spreading. To make matters worse, a forest fire is raging nearby -- and headed their way.

We experience Jacob's life as the town and his mind gradually descend into chaos. It is a disturbing, and sometimes confusing, picture. Jacob and Doc make a number of questionable decisions early on that lead to even more tragic decisions later.

At 195 pages (at least, for my trade paperback edition) this is not a long book, but it is intense and not for the faint-hearted. It is an amazing journey into a hellish situation. ( )
1 vote tymfos | Nov 22, 2014 |
The use of second person present tense throughout was irritating and in fact, repellent; the prose was otherwise undistinguished; the plot was basically a Civil War era zombie story. If there was an examination of "faith" it felt fake and pat, like a Hollywood movie treatment. I really don't get what the fuss was about. ( )
  CSRodgers | May 3, 2014 |
This book was incredibly atmospheric and haunting. The story builds at perfect pace becoming dark and relentless calling into question everything we, as the main character Jacob, once believed.

This is one I will reread. ( )
  dtn620 | Sep 22, 2013 |
This was one of the more depressing books I've read lately. ( )
  chaosmogony | Apr 27, 2013 |
This novel will slowly take you down a dark path, as Jacob Hansen, preacher, sheriff and undertaker, tries to keep his small Wisconsin town alive against a diphtheria outbreak. He is also haunted by his recent experiences in the Civil War, which pushed him to the brink of sanity. This book has the feel, and undoubtedly the quality, of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Find a copy and get hooked on the works of Stewart O'Nan. ( )
  hayduke | Apr 3, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 31 (next | show all)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0312255012, Paperback)

When his town's sleepy summer tranquility is shattered by an outbreak of diphtheria, Jacob Hansen--constable, deacon, and undertaker--stares at an impossible dilemma: save both himself and his family or observe his many duties? Although he's nearly convinced that it's possible to do both, the inexorable and crushing horror of Stewart O'Nan's fifth novel, A Prayer for the Dying, is that evil doesn't flinch, that its insistence can obliterate goodness, corrupt humility. "When won't faith save you?" Jacob wonders; the silence soon deafens him.

An ostensibly inured Civil War veteran, Jacob watches helplessly as his neighbors in tiny Friendship, Wisconsin, are stricken with disease: simply hearing a mother say of her daughter, "She's sick," becomes chilling. Yet even as his wife and baby fall ill, Jacob patiently, dutifully tends to the helpless and buries the dead. When panic erupts, however, and he grapples with the tragedies accumulating before him, he feels the prick of spiritual doubt, even succumbs to violence. "Is this the devil's work?" Jacob asks as he struggles to discern the good in a world without order, watches those he serves turn against him, and disregards his own moral outrage.

O'Nan's style is taut and often oddly lovely, its immediacy braced by an unnerving second-person voice. The novel is, at root, spiritually terrifying. It forces us to consider at what remove we truly are from evil. Overwhelmed with checking his own despair, Jacob begins by pondering how to halt wickedness and ineluctably finds himself sustaining its slow creep. You wonder if he ever had a prayer. --Ben Guterson

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:28:19 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

A diphtheria epidemic breaks out in a small town in post-Civil War Wisconsin and as people die Jacob Hansen, the community's sheriff and pastor, buries the dead and burns buildings. A study in tragedy and grief.

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