review

A PRAYER FOR THE DYING – STEWART O’NAN

A Prayer for the DyingA Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’Nan
My rating: 5/5 cats
One StarOne StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

this book is like boiling milk. at first, everything is nice and serene – a calm pool of pure silken whiteness. and then it starts to shimmer a little bit and you know things are happening, and you start to notice little bloopy bits of activity, but you don’t want to stir it just yet. steam starts to rise from it, and it is almost magical, like tiny milk-ghosts. and then – bubbles! one or two at first, and then so many, too many to even play milk whack-a-mole with. and then – rolling boil! look at me – there is no going back from here, kiddies! and by the time you reach for the whisk, hypnotized by the spectacle, everything is burnt and smelly and ruined.

but you have learned something, even though it was an unpleasant lesson.

this is jacob’s story – a civil war vet living in wisconsin and acting as his town’s constable/pastor/undertaker. if you are interested in his philosophy about how all three professions are connected, he will surely tell you. he is married with a new baby, and a reputation for being a little…skewed. do you like jacob as a character? it doesn’t really matter, because this is told in second-person, so to not like him is to not like yourself, in a manner of reading.

but even if you don’t like him, you will like the story. because it is haunting as shit.

jen fisher, light of my life, pressed this book into my hands when she unexpectedly turned up in my neck of the woods a month or so back. this present was nearly as good as her visit itself. it is such a nice edition – an undersized hardcover that just feels so perfect in the hand, able to be held open with one hand while clutching the disease-ridden subway pole with t’other.

because this book is about horrible, contagious disease.

diptheria, to be precise.

and it ravages the town, spreading from person to person without sympathy or malice, just doing what a disease does, and causing jacob (you) no end of spiritual unease.

this book is about faith. it is about love. it is about sacrifice. it is about trying to always make the right decision in desperate times. it is about frequently making the wrong decision. it is about a man (you) trying not to lose the part of him that trusts in the the mysterious ways of god.

in the middle of the outbreak, just to add more awful to the awful-pile, a fire begins to creep closer and closer to town, thwarting old-timey “firefighters.” the town is in quarantine – no one in or out, but that fire doesn’t care if you are sick or healthy, and the unsick members of the town start to get a little antsy…what are you, the spiritual adviser and the law combined, going to do about it?

oh, dear.

for such a short book, the pacing in this is marvelous. i marvel at it. as more and more “normalcy” collapses, more background is exposed. things that used to be done with a certain amount of care and reverence are, by necessity, done more quickly, sometimes with horrifying consequences. but always in this beautiful prose that makes my heart clench. i have never before read a passage about a horse being put down with more ache in me.

o’nan does everything with a delicate touch of writerly panache.

The whole idea of deathbed conversion strikes you as false, a sop for the dying. It’s when you are happiest, sure of your own strength, that you need to bow down and talk with God. You wonder if that’s lax or fanatic. You know Marta worries when you make too much of your faith, so you’ve taken to praying in your office when the cell’s empty, the stone cold and hard on your knees. There’s nothing desperate about it, just a comfort you rely on time to time, but you’ve given up trying to explain it. You can’t, really. It’s a feeling of almost knowing something, of being close to some grand yet utterly simple answer. But what the answer is, you don’t know. It’s easier to hide it, keep it private, which makes you ashamed. You don’t trust people with secrets.

ahh, jacob, but you have secrets, too, dontcha?

this is a dark, dark book. and a perfect antidote to that harry turtledove book, which contained some of the worst writing i have ever read. this is brilliant. this book wants me to read it again, i can tell.

oh, jacob. oh, me.
our lives are now intertwined.
and it is scary in there…

read my reviews on goodreads

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