Never read anything like it is probably one of the most over-used phrases in reference to books. Indeed, I suspect we like most stories precisely because they remind us of things we have liked in the past.
Stewart O’Nan’s 1999 novel A Prayer for the Dying is the exception. Set in small-town Wisconsin shortly after the end of the American Civil War, this book is shockingly original. It takes place in a utopian community called Friendship that has the misfortune of being in the way of raging summer wildfires. And that’s not by no means the worst of the hamlet’s worries.
People start developing a mysterious illness and dying, causing the local physician to summon sheriff-undertaker-preacher Jacob Hansen to his office to break some bad news.
“Guess I better wire down the line and let Bart know,” you say, but it’s a question. You’re hoping Doc will back off and say he could be mistaken, that the woman’s symptoms could be anything. Diphtheria kills quick, that’s the one thing you know. You think of what the woman said – He takes the little ones first. “Yep,” Doc says, half-distracted, and sighs, an admission of failure. “I guess you’d better.”
One of the startling things about this novel is that it’s written in the second-person. We readers are the protagonist Hansen, and there’s nothing good in store for us.
The Hansen character we’re invited to inhabit is thoroughly noble, a pious helper of his fellow man and a loyal servant of his community. But as the plague begins to eat its way through Friendship, he/we are called on to make a series of impossible choices, sacrificing the interests of some people in the hope that others, at least, can be saved.
Burning down the houses of the infected, for instance, becomes one of “our” chores:
For a second you think it’s gone out, then a breath of white smoke like steam leaks out the door, a flame jumps in a window, cracks it, and soon a black billowing cloud rolls skyward and fire knifes through the roof. You close the gate and stand by the road, watching Meyer’s place burn. His family and all his hard work, come to nothing.
What Hansen and we readers don’t know during this scene is that the house isn’t empty of its inhabitants.
In the end, the unrelenting unfolding tragedy hits home, which the protagonist Hansen shares with his wife and young daughter:
Home, you cook up some bratwurst and drink three ginger beers, then a pint of cider. Leave the dishes undone. Put Amelia to bed with her dolly and open the whiskey, just a hip. It hits you like a truth, wakes up the blood. You laugh; you want to drink it all. You sing at the kitchen table, tap your feet, slap your knee. “Let’s dance you say, and take Marta in your arms, whirl her through the house like you’re nineteen again.
But Marta isn’t talking any more, and Amelia won’t be playing with her dolly, either. The man through the eyes of whom we readers experience the story is coming unhinged.
In an interview shortly after A Prayer for the Dying, O’Nan described it as “a Christian existential horror book,” adding “It’s not the feel-good comedy of the year.” That this novel certainly is not. But it is unique, compelling and extremely worth reading – a well-researched American Gothic take on the Biblical story of Job. It’s strong stuff, probably not for everyone, but it’s disturbingly easy to develop a taste for O’Nan’s work. And once you do, you’ll find it pretty hard to put down.