A Prayer for the Dying A Novel

Stewart O'Nan




Trade Paperback

208 Pages



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A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year

Set in Friendship, Wisconsin, just after the Civil War, A Prayer for the Dying tells of a horrible epidemic that has gripped the town in a vise of fear and death. Jacob Hansen, Friendship's sheriff, undertaker, and pastor, is soon overwhelmed, though he continues to do what he can. But Jacob cannot control the plague's rapid spread, the panic that takes over Friendship, or his own feelings of despair. Dark, poetic, and chilling, A Prayer for the Dying examines the effect of madness and violence on the morality of a once-decent man.


Praise for A Prayer for the Dying

"[O'Nan] is a master of voices and the place they resonate from . . . With a shivery economy of means and a dreadful lavishness of effect, Mr. O'Nan advances the . . . growth of the epidemic and the disintegration of Jacob . . . His madness is not all of him; there is a bleak awareness . . . and this is what makes A Prayer more than a brilliant exercise of darkness."—Richard Eder, The New York Times

"A fine, terse novel about the circumstantial nature of evil and the terrible fragility of man."—Patrick McGrath, The New York Times Book Review

"A cross between Stephen Crane and Stephen King . . . O'Nan is certainly among the strongest American writers of his generation."—The Washington Post Book World

"A sad and chilling novel . . . It will make readers shudder and think and marvel at a writer's creation of an alien world that seems so real."—Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today

"This urgent, economically told novel grabs you at the start and never lets up. O'Nan's novel is beautiful testimony to profound truths."—Dan Cryer, Newsday

"A new masterpiece of American literature."—Dennis Lehane, Entertainment Weekly

"A Prayer for the Dying reads like the amazing, unrelenting love child of Shirley Jackson and Cormac McCarthy. It's twisted proof that God will do worse to test a faithful man than the devil would ever do to punish a sinner."—Chuck Palahniuk

"The sleepy agricultural community of Friendship, WI, provides an ideal refuge for Jacob Hansen, a Civil War veteran recovering from the trauma of battle. As if to atone for past sins, Hansen dedicates his life to public service, working as town sheriff, minister, and undertaker. But the quiet life Hansen cherishes is shattered forever when he embalms the corpse of a nameless drifter and inadvertently exposes himself and his neighbors to diphtheria. As sheriff, Hansen quarantines the town and begins burning the homes of those who have died from the disease. The more he tries to help, the worse things become. O'Nan, named one of the best young American novelists by Granta, is a literary chameleon who seems to change his identity with each book. This is a beautifully written, heartbreaking work, modeled on Albert Camus's classic La Peste."—Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law School Library, Los Angeles, School Library Journal

"If there were any doubt of his protean gifts on the basis of his four previous, singularly different novels, O'Nan again proves himself a writer of dazzling virtuosity and imagination. This eloquent horror tale/philosophical fable is yet another of his narratives in which character and fate intertwine in a situation of moral gravity. Narrator Jacob Hansen . . . is a psychologically scarred Civil War veteran. Shortly after the end of the conflict, he has settled with his wife and baby daughter in the tiny prairie town of Friendship, Wis., which is now in the midst of a spectacularly beautiful summer—and a troubling drought. Jacob has three jobs—as undertaker, constable and minister—and a crushing, somewhat eerie sense of responsibility for all of the citizens of Friendship. His feverish piety and his repeated declarations of faith are gradually revealed as thin coverings over a bottomless well of despair. When three deaths from diphtheria occur in quick succession, Jacob convinces his wife not to leave town with the baby, even as he is passively fatalistic about their slim chances of escaping infection. After both Marta and the baby die, Jacob becomes unhinged; he keeps their bodies in the house, dressing, washing and sleeping with them. Outwardly, however, he doggedly continues to go about his duties, rendered even more frantic as the epidemic escalates, a quarantine is belatedly imposed, and many of the townspeople try to steal away during the night. Meanwhile, a wildfire is moving implacably toward the area, and the serene summertime landscape turns into a version of hell as the sky darkens and the air is heavy with ashes. Even as he commits acts of violence under the duress of duty, Jacob muses that this may be the reckoning described in biblical prophecy: the world cleansed by pestilence and fire. Indeed, Jacob is a version of Job, although he never challenges God but questions his own culpability in failing to keep his world whole and peaceful. O'Nan does a superb job of establishing the faint sense of menace that grows into a horrifying nightmare of random destruction and death . . . The narrative moves with surefooted technique into the realm of sinister gothic mystery. Profoundly unsettling . . . It is a mesmerizing story and a brilliant tour de force."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Stewart O'Nan

  • Stewart O'Nan is the author of eleven novels, including Songs for the Missing, Snow Angels, a story collection, and two works of nonfiction. His previous novel, Last Night at the Lobster, was a national bestseller and was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was named one of the New York Public Library's Books to Remember. In 1996, Granta named him one of the twenty Best Young American Novelists. O'Nan lives with his family in Avon, Connecticut.

  • Stewart O'Nan Copyright Amy Etra
    Stewart O'Nan




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