A Prayer for the Dying: A Novel

A Prayer for the Dying: A Novel

4.6 14
by Stewart O'Nan

View All Available Formats & Editions

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 is suddenly and gruesomely killing the town's residents and setting off a terrifying paranoia. Jacob Hansen, Friendship's sheriff, undertaker, and pastor, is soon

…  See more details below


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 is suddenly and gruesomely killing the town's residents and setting off a terrifying paranoia. Jacob Hansen, Friendship's sheriff, undertaker, and pastor, is soon overwhelmed by the fear and anguish around him, and his sanity begins to fray. Dark, poetic, and chilling, A Prayer for the Dying examines the effect of madness and violence on the morality of a once-decent man.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
"What really knocks me out," says Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, "is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you feel like it."

When I finished Stewart O'Nan's A Prayer for the Dying, I did just that. I called him. I told him how jealous I was that he'd been able to write such a large-vision book in such a svelte (190-page) package. Flannery O'Connor was right: A good man is hard to find, when what's meant by "good" is moral and not civil, when it refers to something larger than likability. What O'Nan does in this book — create a convincingly good man and put him in the middle of his story — is among the toughest acts a novelist can perform.

I had, it's true, expected to like the book. Who wouldn't want to read a book with blurbs from writers as disparate as Sue Grafton, Wally Lamb, Chuck Palahnuik, and Colum McCann, a book that's drawn comparisons with an equally disparate range of writers (Poe, Camus, O'Connor, Shirley Jackson, Cormac McCarthy)? In terms of its range of subject matter, of style, of tone, and of technique, O'Nan's body of work seems to me to be unrivaled among North American literary writers ineligible for membership in AARP. (Joyce Carol Oates is 60. Margaret Atwood turns 60 any day now.) Consider, in the order that they were published, O'Nan's five novels:

Snow Angels is set in a small town in Pennsylvania in the winter of 1974. It's the story of a murdered high-school girl, toldinretrospect by a boy she'd babysat, in an amalgam of first-person past tense and third-person present.

The Names of the Dead is set primarily in Ithaca, New York, in 1982, with long stretches set also in Vietnam in 1968, all told from a single third-person perspective, a vet-cum-Wonder Bread truck driver.

The Speed Queen, still my favorite of his books, is O'Nan's only novel set in the present; in it, a born-again woman on death row, in the hours leading up to her execution, speaks into a tape recorder, answering a series of questions in hopes that the rights to her life story can be sold to her favorite writer, Stephen King. It's a slyly brainy book, a rich and affectionate skewering of American junk culture and its attendantly glib packaging of "true" stories. Some readers mistook the book for a product of the culture it satirizes, a charge that (as is also the case with "The Simpsons") is 10 percent undeniable and 90 percent dim-witted.

A World Away takes place during World War II, set in the Hamptons and in San Diego, told in languorous third-person prose that's a book-length tribute to its author's admiration for James Salter.

A Prayer for the Dying is set in a small town in Wisconsin, just after the Civil War, told from the perspective of the town's undertaker/sheriff/pastor in — get this — second-person present tense, that most contemporary of narrative stances. O'Nan manages to suffuse the novel with such nicely pitched 19th-century prose that the mutant first-person perspective that the second-person usually is ("you" instead of "I," in other words, an authorial choice that renders the narrator self-conscious and self-lacerating) comes to seem not only earned but intrinsic to the tale told.

I ask O'Nan if he's consciously tried to write such different books. His first answer is not really, that he mostly was reacting against the book he'd just finished.

For example?

"In The Names of the Dead," he says, "I did a ton of research. I wanted to get everything right because I felt really responsible to the Vietnam vets. It's a long, heavily plotted book with long chapters. After that," he says, laughing, "I wanted to do something fast-paced, wild, irresponsible, with short chapters, an impressionistic, almost plotless book. That's what I did with Dear Stephen King." He's talking about The Speed Queen.

"The title of that book is Dear Stephen King," O'Nan insists "always has been, always will be. That's what it says on my computer discs, that's what it says on the manuscript. The title is the only time his name appears in the book, and I used it as a frame, as a sign welcoming the reader in, signaling that this was a different kind of book from me."

King caught wind of the book; his lawyers threatened to sue. The publisher's lawyers said there was nothing King could win, but that the cost of fighting the charges would be far more than the book itself could ever hope to earn. O'Nan stood up for the title. Both his agent and his editor pressured him to cave. The agent refused to take the book with that title to another house. Even after O'Nan reluctantly agreed to publish the book as The Speed Queen, his paperback publisher for his first two books — Penguin, King's publisher at the time — refused even to make an offer on the book.

The novel's dedication page reads, "For my dear Stephen King."

To pile one absurdity upon another, the book's main murder takes place at a Sonic Drive-in, and though the protagonist speaks lovingly about the food there throughout the book, Sonic's lawyers threatened to sue. They said the book endangered their employees. By the same logic, O'Nan countered, every bank in the world could sue the producers of every movie to feature a bank robbery. But in the paperback edition of the novel, every mention of "Sonic" was changed to "Mach 6."

Disgusted, O'Nan fired his agent and left the publishing house. After two books with Henry Holt, O'Nan's next book will come out with Doubleday, the same house that did The Speed Queen. Everyone O'Nan fought with has since left. "That," says O'Nan, "is publishing for you."

He tells me about the first and, to his mind, still the best novel he ever wrote, "a big sprawling Tolstoyan book" that he has yet to be able to sell. His next book, instead, will be about the Hartford, Connecticut, circus fire of 1944.

C'mon, I say. You have to be doing this consciously. I've never known a writer more determined not to repeat himself.

O'Nan pauses. It's true, he says, that when he was growing up, the writers he most loved were the sort who were both insanely prolific and willing to try anything, writers whose body of work was so large, strange, and fearless, it defied classification. Richard Matheson, for one ("completely open to any kind of thing"). Ray Bradbury, for another ("Bradbury could go to Mars or to small-town Illinois and be great in both"). Today, 37 years old, with a story collection, five remarkably unalike novels, and two anthologies under his belt, O'Nan speaks admiringly of Atwood, "who can do anything," and Oates, "who's not afraid to fail — she's just out to tell a good story."

"After all," says O'Nan, "what's the meaning of the word 'novel'?"

—Mark Winegardner

Read More

Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Sold by:
Sales rank:
File size:
279 KB

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

High summer and Friendship's quiet. The men tend the shimmering fields. Children tramp the woods, wade the creeks, sound the cool ponds. In town, women pause in the heavy air of the millinery, linger over bolts of yard goods, barrels of clumped flour. The only sound's the freight drumming through to the south, tossing its plume of cinders above the treetops, the trucks clicking a mile off. Then quiet, the buzz of insects, the breathless afternoon. Cows twitch and flick.

    You like it like this, the bright, languid days. It could stand to rain, everyone says, the sawdust piles at the mill dry as powder, the great heaps of slash in the woods dangerous, baked to tinder, but there's something to the heat, the way it draws waves from tarpaper, stifles sound, closes town in. Winter was full of chimney fires and horses frozen on the plank road, and spring was hard, with the baby, but Marta's almost back to herself now, her garden thick, tomatoes fist-sized. Except Millie and Elsa Sullivan going at it with their flatware, and Mrs. Goetz passing in church, you haven't had much business of late, which is fine with you.

    Not that you mind earning your money, but when folks have need of you it's someone's misfortune one way or the other. The undertaking's easy; being a constable is hard. When you put them together it can be too much, though that's only happened once since you've been back. And you got through that fine, did the Soderholms proud. With his head cocked on the pillow and his hair combed just so, you couldn't see where his brother conked him, and Eric, for his part, went easy, even came to the funeral in irons and his Sunday suit. You led him up to the casket for his last respects.

    "I didn't mean it so hard," he said, not really sorry, still mad at him.

    It was about a dog. Arnie threw it in the river above the mill dam to see if it would drown. It didn't, but by then it was too late to save either of the Soderholm brothers. It was just a plain rock, you picked it up in one hand, weighed it like an egg. Cain and Abel, you thought — your mother's love of Bible stories bubbling up — then thought it didn't fit. It was an accident, two good boys like that. When you told Marta, she cried.

    The marshal who rode the mail stage up from Madison shook his head like it figured, a dying old lead town like Friendship. He squinted at the empty storefronts in judgment — The Marquette County Record, the First Bank of Wisconsin. You had the one brother in the cell and the other on a block in the icehouse, sawdust stuck to his jaw. You had the rock in a cheese box and the boy's confession ready for the marshal to take back to the capital. He was surprised you'd made such a nice job of Arnie's skull.

    "You do anything else?" he asked.

    "Preach a little," you said, trying not to sound proud. He wasn't really interested, only joking, so you didn't go into how you see all three as related, ways to give praise and thanks for this paradise. He wasn't that kind of man — he would have laughed at you. Others around town do, some kiddingly. It's all right. They'll all come to you someday, and they know you'll do right by them. It's a contract, an honor, you tell them. Friendship's my town, you say, and they think you're too serious, too sentimental, a fool. They think the war did something to you. Maybe so, but for the good, you think. That kind of talk doesn't temper your fondness for them. It's not just the job that makes you responsible. It is your town, they are your people, even the Hermit sitting in his dingy cave, his ducks setting up a racket if anyone comes near.

    Today they send for you, or Old Man Meyer sends his littlest, Bitsi. She comes running, kicking up dust, getting her stockings dirty. "Sheriff Hansen! Sheriff Hansen!"

    You're standing on the stairs outside, ignoring the big bay hitched outside of Fenton's dipping at the water trough. That's the one thing you'll admit is strange about you: you don't like to be around horses anymore. It's understandable, having had to eat them during the siege, to burrow into their warm, dead guts for cover, but you don't talk about that, or only to Marta, who'd never let it slip. It's come so no one asks why you ride the bicycle or pump the handcar along the rusty company spurs in the backwoods. The old hands must explain it to the newer immigrants — the Norwegians come to join family, the Poles who step off the stage looking stunned, the Cornish unaware there's nothing left to mine here.

    Bitsi tackles your leg, hauls on your arm, too winded to get anything out. "Pa said come. Pa said come quick."

    "Whoa, whoa," you say. It could be anything, nothing. Old Meyer's back pasture butts up against the Holy Light Colony, and the last few weeks he's had you out about people wandering through the woods at night with lit candles. It's a worry with everything so dry, but Meyer's real objection is with the Colony itself. It's new, mostly city folk, led by a man named Chase. The place runs back into the hills; Chase bought up the old Nokes claim — the mansion, the camp, everything. People say he preaches the Last Times. They say he leads services in the mines at night, that he shares his disciples' wives, that he eats nothing but unleavened bread, like some desert prophet, some wild-eyed stylite. You've met him once, and he seemed reserved, well-dressed, soft-spoken. You're unsure what you think of him, a fact you pride yourself on. It defines you, this willingness to hear all sides, love everyone. You've stopped believing in evil. Is that a sin? You know what your mother would say, but justice needs to be fair-handed, the dead deserve your compassion. It's your job to understand, to forgive, not simply your custom.

    You kneel beside Bitsi so you're face to face. "Now slow down. What is it, honey?"

    "Pa says there's a dead man."

    "Someone from the Colony?"

    "Pa found him back of the beehive. You gotta come."

    You fit her on the handlebars and set off, wobbly, then straighten out. It's been so dry the roads are ground down flat, a treat after the frost heaves, the muds of April. Bitsi's never been on a bike before, and she's laughing, her fingers clenched white. You fly down halls of high, still barley. You cross the shadowy box of Ender's bridge, break into blinding sunlight. Behind you in town, steam boils up from the mill, sits thick as clotted cream in the bright sky. The church bell calls noon, the sound flat and weak in the heat. Not a swallow of air, just the shrill of hidden cicadas, grasshoppers popping up. A single cloud sails on the horizon, as if cut adrift.

    The Meyer boys are in the garden, hoeing, twins in matching overalls. Marcus and Thaddeus. Twins. You're having a hard enough time with just Amelia, her all-night colic. Marta's tired all the time. Doc Guterson says it's normal, but that's no comfort. The Meyer boys stop and smile, polite. When they tip their straw hats, you can see where their tans stop, their foreheads bright as whitewash.

    "Sheriff," they say. Your real title's constable, but only Marta ever calls you that, and only in bed.


    "Pa's out back," one says, and you look to the other as if it's his turn. He grins blankly. You tip your hat, obliged, and Bitsi leads you past them.

    Old Meyer's behind the house, scraping honeycomb into a bowl. His netting is thrown back, and a single bee sits on one cheek like a tear. He points the dripping knife at the treeline.

    "Back there's a young fella dead, I don't know who."

    "Tramp?" you guess, because it's been a hard year, a lot of men moving through, looking for work.

    "Could be. Look like he's in the war by his get-up."

    That's usually a clue; a lot of men never went home. Six years and they're still pitching and striking camp, marching at dawn.

    "What do you think happened?" you ask.

    "Couln't say. Din't look at him that hard, just saw he's dead, kinda green around the mouth."

    "How far back's he in?"

    "Just keep going straight," Old Meyer says, pointing the knife. "You'll find him."

    Meyer's right. After a minute of picking through prickers, the heavy reek of rendered fat clamps around you like smoke. In a strange way, it's almost welcome; after the relief of the siege, your regiment had the job of searching for casualties, and this familiar smell in the middle of a Kentucky swamp meant some mother would get her son back.

    This isn't so different. The man you come across is lying belly-down beside the smudge of a dead campfire. It's gone all night, the stones cracked and blackened. The cuffs of his private's blues are frayed white, the buttons missing. He's not green, more yellow, but definitely young — your age, no more than thirty, and beardless. You don't see any wounds. His face is so drawn, the eyes so deeply sunken, that for a moment you think of prisoners, starvation, yet that would take days. This looks quick, one minute sitting on the log, the next pitching over. Dropped from behind, coldcocked. You think of Eric Soderholm and his stone, the dog in the water. You wonder if it barked, if the boys could hear it over the falls.

    Under a fern lies the same tin cup that rattled at your hip for three years. He's got the same jacket, the same belt, the same cap you came home in.

    You squat and sniff the cup. Coffee. Straighten up and look around for the pot he boiled it in, for his stores. One of his pockets is sticking out like a white flag, and you check the woods as if the killer might be watching you. He's long gone, probably out of the county by now. You'll wire down the line to Shawano, tell Bart Cox to keep an eye out for tramps. Bart went to see the elephant with you and caught a minie ball in his arm at Bloody Run. The arm healed crooked, then went bad; Bart's still a crack shot with his other. He was a sergeant, and has less sympathy than you for these transients — brother soldiers be damned. But there are a lot of them out there, and your mother's missionary blood rises every time you think of them. They travel in twos often as not. Sad really, this one. Probably thought the man was his friend.

    "God have mercy," you pray, then turn him over. No blood on his filthy undershirt, no bullet holes, no bowie knife slipped between the ribs. His cuticles are purple, like he's dipped them in wine, and you wonder how long it's been. You'll have to talk to Doc, see what he says. You tuck the cap and the cup into the man's jacket, cross his arms over his belly, though they don't want to go. This is how they taught you in the army; it's easier on the back. You take him by the ankles, note the sliver-thin heels on his army-issue boots, the cracked leather.

    There's no pretty way to do this, though you try to be careful. One day when your regiment was combing a meadow you broke a man's jaw for propping a dead Reb against a fencepost for a joke. If there's anything your jobs have taught you, it's to take death seriously, give it the same respect as love.

    "It's all right," you find yourself saying to him. "We'll get you set proper, don't you fret." It's a bad habit, talking to the dead. Marta says you say more to them than the living, and while she's kidding, it just might be true. Sometimes in the cellar you hold long conversations with those you're working over, answering your own questions as you drain their veins, trying to find out what you really think about justice, destiny, Heaven. You wonder if you're getting too serious, growing old.

    "Going soft," you say, and the man nods, his head jostling through a patch of wild aster, and you feel bad for joking with him. Spooked. It's just the uniform, the recognition that this could be you. By the time you get him to the hives, you're somber, and even the bees' mad industry doesn't bring a smile.

    Meyer's still filling the bowl with clots of honey, the handle of the knife and his thin buckskin gloves dark with it. He has one of the twins pull his rig alongside the weeds and help you lift the dead man into the back. The springs squeak. The boy makes a face at the smell, tries not to look at the body. He seems incomplete without his brother, diminished. You don't know which one it is, Marcus or Thaddeus.

    "Can we get something to cover him," you say, and not just from respect. You don't need folks in town gawking, making it their business. Since the mines shut down, gossip's been Friendship's biggest industry.

    The boy comes back with a scrap of burlap and you fashion it over the body yourself. He climbs up on the seat. The smell of the horses is getting to you, making you think of mud, the way your stomach clenched when the Reb artillery whistled over.

    "Take him straight to Doc Guterson's," you tell him.

    "Yes, sir," he says, still afraid to look back, and teases the reins to set the team walking. The dead man bounces as they cross the yard, his heels banging the bed. The tin cup clatters, then slides off into the grass with a glint. Bitsi dashes through the timothy and scoops it up like a prize chick and gives it to you. The metal's already begun to warm. You tuck it in your pocket and head for your bicycle, leaning in the shade of the eaves. You want to get to town first, and you know boys when their father gives them the rig.

    "Well?" Meyer calls over.

    "Well, we'll find out."

    "I don't know why they gotta come here, there's no work for them. Betcha I'll load up the gun with rock salt tonight, sure."

    "Set your dogs out, that'll take care of them. Say, which one's that driving?"

    "That's Thaddeus."

    "Any problems with the Colony?"

    "Nope, pretty quiet lately."

    "That's good. You didn't touch him or move him around," you ask, sure that Meyer didn't, but it's your job to be suspicious, to think of things other people wouldn't.

    "No, sir. I wanted nothing to do with him, you bet."

    "All right," you say, and trade a last batch of pleasantries, thank Bitsi and set off.

    The dust on the road has settled and you can see the ruts left by Meyer's rig. Barn swallows flit over the fields, hop post to post, calling. With every pump of your legs, the cup in your pocket worries your crotch. You don't like that Meyer called you sir. He's had money problems, that's why he's putting up honey to sell in town. He wouldn't kill a man, and he probably wouldn't rob one, but if there was something lying around he might just pick it up. That wouldn't have been true before his Alma died, but now he's got the twins and Bitsi all by himself, and that can make a man desperate. Last month in Shawano Oly Marsden lost two calves and the stationmaster shot him trying to rob the depot. Bart said he didn't even tie a mask on, just walked up to the window with a shotgun like it was his due. The stationmaster had a skeet pistol and put a hole through Oly's Adam's apple. So there was a man who drove his daughters to the parish dances, bleeding to death on the boards of the platform, the passengers from the noon train flowing around him like he was nothing. You don't like to think this way, so you stand up on the pedals and reach down and push the cup around so it doesn't fuss with you so much.

    By law, the man was trespassing, so if Meyer did do something, he was in his rights. But that's a quibble, not really the spirit of the law. Meyer didn't kill him. Maybe he turned out his pockets, shook his pack out in the grass. Not honorable certainly, but criminal?

    You shake your head to dismiss it. A man's dead, there's no room for these fine distinctions. Murder's always simple.

    You mark the dust before you see the rig plodding along, the burlap thrown over him, Thaddeus still not looking back. You dip the brim of your hat, tuck your head down to keep the dust out of your eyes; it sticks to your lashes, powders your jacket. You dig hard to pass him, ignoring the horses, then give him a wave. In a few minutes you can't even see him behind you, only the fields, the treeline, the sky.

    It's a perfect day, but you see the man sprawled across the fire, his one cheek dark with charcoal. You'll talk to Doc, he'll figure it out. You know it's best not to think too long on these things.

    Karmanns started haying last week, and as you pass, thinking of the snap beans Marta promised this morning, you see a woman lying in the brilliant stubble. At first you think it's a fieldhand catching a nap, but she's wearing a shift, her hair bright as the dry ricks. She's facedown like your friend in the rig, and you slow and hop off and jump the ditch, thinking it can't be, two in the same day.

    Before you even reach her, you panic and wonder if it's the work of one person, like those little girls Bart found in the smith's cistern. Now there was evil. Bart showed you the odd parts, the marks on their bodies, and while you prided yourself on having seen worse, this wasn't the war, these were just children. You helped Bart burn the smith's barn and then his house to the ground while the whole town watched, silent as mourners. It was a distraction; while you and Bart offered up his property, the smith was being whisked out the back door of the courthouse by the same marshal who took care of Eric Soderholm.

    Tromping across the stubble, you wonder if the smith could have broken out of Mendota, if you'll have to wire Bart and tell him to bring the dogs. And it was such a pretty day too, you think, that quiet you like. Even now the trees are calm, riffling with the slightest breeze, then subsiding.

    Closer, you can see she's a good-sized woman, older. She's from the city; you can tell by the gauzy chemise, the stockings, the high-buttoned shoes. Probably from the Colony. Occasionally they escape, go off on frolics in the saloons, and you have to corral them. You peer off over the field for a sign of Karmann or his boys, but there's no one, only a hawk riding the day's heat, spiraling high.

    Her legs are scratched and bleeding, her stockings torn. You kneel by her feet for a better look. One line of blood's fresh, still wet, and when you touch a finger to it to make sure, she flips over and kicks your hand away.

    You back up, automatically going for your Colt, but your hand never gets there because you're lost in watching her.

    She jerks as if pitching a fit, thrashes her head side to side. Her neck is dirty, her hair all snarls, as if she's been living in the woods. You think of the Hermit's missing teeth, his curling fingernails, and pull your jacket back over the butt of your gun.

    "Jesus Jesus Jesus," she moans. "Jesus Jesus Jesus."

    "Ma'am!" you say, "Ma'am."

    It takes a while, but she slows, lets her head drop. "Jesus I love you, Jesus I love you." It's like singing, pleading. Her eyes are squeezed so tight she's crying, but she sounds happy. "I love Jesus."

    It's ecstasy, you see it each July when the revival comes through, their wagons painted with biblical scenes, bright as the circus. You've always thought it was fake, this rapture, a stage trick, a shill egging on the susceptible, filling the tent. You know the Lord as well as anyone, and there's no call for all that show. Could be she's been drinking.

    "Ma'am," you say, and take her arm.

    She lets you help her up, muttering, "Jesus my Lord and savior," but when you try to lead her back to the road, she tears her wrist away and falls to the ground again. She writhes in the hay at your feet.

    "Really, ma'am," you scold her. It's too hot for this, too buggy. You'll have to ride the handcar out the Nokes spur to the Colony now, see Chase.

    You look back to the road, and there's Thaddeus, the rig stirring up dust. You wave both arms over your head, and he slows, the cloud closing over him.

    The woman's gone quiet again, mumbling, eyes dull. She coughs and brings up something, a string hanging off her chin, and you step back, thinking she might be wild, mad like an animal. You've seen a diseased hog take a chunk out of a man's knee, the foam dripping green from its lips.

    "I saw Jesus," she says, acknowledging you for the first time, and you think she's just sick, that there must be a simple reason behind all this. "I saw Jesus," she repeats. It's a question now, directed at you, a fact you seem to be disputing.

    "I know you did," you say, because it's foolish to argue with crazy people. You offer her your hand and she takes it and you pull her up again.

    "He was so beautiful. He's been waiting for me."

    "For all of us," you say.

    "Yes," she says. "How did you know?"

    "I know something of him."

    "Brother Chase says he saves all of us, the cleansed and the sick. Do you think that's true?" She stops and gapes at you as if you really might know.

    "Of course," you say, "we're all saved," and steer her across the field. It's not a convenient lie either; you truly believe this. Otherwise you wouldn't have taken Reverend Toomey's place, preaching from his pulpit after the diocese called him back to Madison. Deacon Hansen, they call you Sunday, and then Monday you find they've given the milk-hand a black eye, that their youngest got himself cut up in a sporting house over in Shawano. It's all of a piece, you think; sheriff or deacon, you're trying to remind them of their best instincts, their better selves.

    "All!" She laughs. "Ah, Brother, but you're not sick."

    "No," you concede.

    "It's easy to believe then."

    You disagree with this but just nod. The whole idea of deathbed conversion strikes you as false, a sop for the dying. It's when you're 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 that 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.

    You walk the woman toward Thaddeus, who meets you halfway. He shies back from her, and, unfairly, you think he's some squeamish for a farmboy. Bitsi didn't have any trouble picking up that cup.

    "Have you seen Jesus?" she asks him.

    He looks to you, unsure what to say. "No, ma'am," he says, tentative.

    "He sees you," she answers, as if the converse logically follows.

    Thaddeus looks to you helplessly.

    "He sees all of us," you say.

    "That's right," the woman says, and lets loose another hawking cough. She seems recovered, but that might be temporary. You'll take her to Doc Guterson too.

    The team is a pair of big Belgians, the kind that used to draw the guns. They stand champing, veiny bellies wriggling to toss off flies. The soldier's begun to stink with the heat, and you can feel the past oozing up like mud. You rearrange him under the burlap and lift the bike on, then hop up to give the woman a hand in. Thaddeus is glad to take the driver's seat again.

    You shield the woman from the dead man, but she stares at the burlap, rubs her nose with the back of a hand. Thaddeus snaps the reins and the wheels grate over the road. Your bike settles, the man's boots knock.

    "In Heaven you forget everything," she says. "In Hell they make you remember."

    No, you think, it's the other way around. "Maybe so," you say.

    "Everyone smells, even the saved. My Daniel smelled. We laid hands on him but it was too late."

    "Was he at the Colony?"

    "Brother Chase said it's a sin, going against God's will. I think it is now, I do."

    "Daniel was your husband," you ask, but she looks off over the fields. Weitzels are out haying, the smaller boy atop the wagon with a fork. Midsummer day, start to make hay. They're almost done, just one row of ricks left. They wave, and you know the whole town will be discussing this over supper, speculating on who the woman was, and what you had in the back of Old Meyer's rig. People will drop by tomorrow to see if she's in the cell.

    "He takes the little ones first," the woman says, and you can't help but think of Amelia.

    "I'm very sorry, ma'am," you say, thinking this might explain at least some of her behavior. If this really is the truth.

    "Heaven's full of babies."

    "It is."

    She nods and coughs hard, and Thaddeus looks back an instant, as if he's forgotten you're there. From town comes the church bell tolling one. Doc should be getting up from his nap right about now, taking his collar off its stand, pinching the stays in place. He'll be able to help her.

    The road turns along the river, under a row of weed trees. The heat makes the cicadas scream. As you rock through the dimness of Ender's bridge, you can hear children splashing and laughing below, the rafters holding an echo, pigeons lowing, and you nudge the man's boot back under the burlap. Into the sun again. The woman stares blankly at the wake of dust rising behind you. The ecstasy seems to have passed, and she looks spent, empty, old. The river's low, the flats cracked mud, the reeds rotting. The Belgians nicker at the smell.

    Town's green though, cool. You take the last turn before Friendship proper, and the clapboard houses of your neighbors slide by, neat behind their picket fences, the oaks above a tunnel. You look up and the limbs pass overhead, dip as if blessing you. Flickers chirp, unseen. In the shade, the day seems easy again, but it's a trick. There's a man dead, a woman sick with grief.

    Still, you think, snap beans for supper. You'll coax Marta into singing while you play the melodeon, and after Amelia's down, the two of you will read to each other from Mrs. Stowe until you reach the end of the chapter. One of you will trim the lamp, and in the dark Marta's hand will find yours. In bed you'll need the comforter, you'll snuggle down under it. That's the nice thing about living so far north; even in the heat of summer, the nights are cool. "Jacob," she'll say, and wish you sweet dreams. And lying there beside her, silently saying your prayers, you'll think, what a world this is, what luck you have, and you'll thank God, you'll let Him know how glad you are for everything — even the heat, the dust, the tears of this madwoman. And even you, then, will wonder how you have such hope, and marvel at how impossible it is to stop the heart from reaching out to the whole world — to all of your people here in Friendship, asleep under the summer moon — and alone in the dark you'll submit, give in to this great blessing, and think, yes, tomorrow will be a better day.

    Maybe you are a fool. You remember what your mother used to say about Reverend Toomey: a holy fool is still a fool. It's not true, you think, not completely. Funny how you never agree to anything, keep that last piece of yourself back. Is it prudence or faithlessness — and does it matter to anyone but you?

    The trees give way to Main Street, the sun hot on your hair. Fenton's out in his apron, dusting a rug over the hitching rail with a wire beater. You check the woman; she's muttering, shrugging, arguing with herself. Yancey Thigpen's mare is tied outside the livery, otherwise it's quiet, only the steam pulsing up from the mill, the distant drone of the saws. Thaddeus draws the team even with Doc's shingle. They stamp, their traces jingling, and you take the woman's arm.

    "Thank you," she says, stepping down.

    Across the street, Fenton's stopped thumping the rug. You motion for Thaddeus to get the door. First he wipes his boots on the edge of the sidewalk, and you're sorry for thinking poorly of him. The bell rings and you guide the woman inside.

    Doc's parlor is empty and dark and smells of violets fresh from Irma's garden. She picked out the furniture in Chicago, and no one wants to sit on it. Even the city woman's impressed, inspecting the flocked wallpaper, the golden innards of the clock in its bell jar.

    "Hello," you ask.

    "Be a minute," Doc calls from the back, behind the curtain. He splashes water in a basin, bangs a cupboard shut.

    "It's me," you call. "I brought company."

    He flings the curtain aside like a magician. He's just gotten up, small and dapper in his pin-striped suit and stiff boiled shirt, hair parted in the middle and brilliantined, mustache waxed. People say he's taken to fancy ways since marrying, but that's jealousy. Irma's from Milwaukee, a teacher at the state normal school, and a few families here with prettier daughters are still bitter. And he's always been fastidious; he orders his shoes through the mail, buys his shirts ten at a time.

    "Oh my dear," he says, noticing the woman, and goes over to her. She's bigger than he is. "We're not doing so well, are we?"

    "Careful there," you say, and tell him how you found her.

    "Right," he says, "I see," more interested in her neck. "I don't think that's going to be a problem, do you?" he asks her.

    "No," she says absently, all the fight gone out of her. "Thank you."

    He tips her chin up to feel along her jaw, and you notice a bandage on his hand.

    You ask.

    "Just clumsy," he shrugs. He gives Thaddeus a nod. The boy returns it, his hat in both hands, shy, polite. "Why don't you bring the other fellow in? This may take a bit."

    Thaddeus waits for you to move, and again you're impatient with him.

    You forgot how hot it was, how bright. Fenton's gone back inside, Yancey's mare flinging her tail to drive off flies. You try to keep the burlap over the soldier, drag him across the back of the wagon like a sack, get him under the armpits. The boy just stands there.

    "Lend a hand there, if you would," you say, not too hard, and Thaddeus takes his ankles.

    You walk backward, your heels searching for the edge of the sidewalk, the step up. You're glad he's not a fat one. You remember wrestling Mrs. Goetz onto the table in the cellar, turning your knee and cursing her, then that night praying for patience. What was it you said last week in your sermon — even the meanest work is a form of praise? No wonder Marta worries you'll end up in the Colony, dancing jaybird naked in the woods, a candle in each hand.

    You shoulder the door open and the bell tinkles.

    "Hold on," Doc calls, and bursts through the curtain with his shirtsleeves rolled. "Put him down."


    "Put him down," he orders, almost scolding, and before you can give him a look, he says it again. "On the floor. Now."

    "What is it?" you ask, but he's pulled the burlap off and kneels by the man's face — the sunken eyes and greening skin. He leans in close as a lover, slips a hand between the man's teeth and pulls down his jaw.

    "That lamp," he says, pointing, and you give it to him. He sets the glass chimney aside and lights it, holds it over the man's face. Flecks of wheat stick in his whiskers. Doc's fingers rummage around in his mouth, under his tongue, as if searching for a hidden jewel. Beside you, Thaddeus is transfixed.

    Doc stands up and fits the lamp back together. "Take him next door and try not to touch him too much."

    "What is it?"

    "Just take him down the cellar for now. I'll talk to you when I get her settled."

    "She acting up?"

    "You could say that. Just get him down, will you? And make sure and wash up good, both of you."

    "Okay," you say, but hesitant, to let him know he's being strange.

    You rearrange the burlap, pick the soldier up and walk backwards again, brushing the jamb, tottering down the walk one door to your place. It's open, and as you maneuver through, you see Fenton over the boy's shoulder, peering from his door.

    Thaddeus looks around your office at the empty cell, the rifles locked to the wall, the old posters. What an adventure he's having; how jealous Marcus will be. And now you're taking him down to a room the boys of Friendship Whisper about, the boldest professing intimate knowledge around dying campfires.

    There's nothing to see — the clay walls, the table with its gutter draining into a pail, a few casks of fluid, a miter by a stack of cured cedar cut to the three usual lengths. Your tools hang neatly on the rough beams, polished and gleaming in the lamplight. To him it must seem ghoulish, fantastic as Ali Baba's cave. You want to tell him it's a job, and not simply a necessary one, but a last opportunity to care for another person, to serve their family.

    You get the soldier onto the table. If it were just you, you'd strap him in and turn the crank so the whole thing would tilt, but the boy's seen enough for one day. You thank him and he thumps up the stairs.

    "It's cold down there," he says, washing over the basin.

    "Stays the same the year round." It's an old trick, you want to tell him. A hundred years ago the French used it to summer their furs. In the winter you store Friendship's dead down there, their coffins waiting for the ground to thaw out. You want to tell him about the conversations they have, the arguments over things long forgotten. You want to impress on him how many stories everyone has within them, how much each death diminishes Friendship, especially with the young people leaving. But again, he's done enough. And he's young, you don't expect him to understand. Outside, he lifts your bike over the side of the rig, and you thank him once more before he starts off.

    Yancey's mare is gone, but John Cole's sorrel and buckboard are hitched at Fenton's. You slip into Doc's as if for an afternoon chat.

    The parlor's empty, in back the sound of water sloshing.

    "That you, Jacob?" he calls, and you answer. "I'll just be a minute."

    You slap the dust off your bottom before sitting on Irma's love seat. You wonder what Doc saw. Usually he'll take you into his examining room and go over the littlest detail with you, as if you're a student. Maybe it was starvation, and he was too busy with the woman. You don't believe it, the way the man pitched into the fire. When soldiers go hungry too long, they liberate food. And it's not like Doc to boss you around. Make sure and wash up good, he said. This is the hard part of being a constable: when it comes to Friendship, you don't like mysteries. You worry too much. It's like Amelia's colic; you want to be sure it's normal, that in the morning you won't find her blue and motionless in her crib.

    Doc comes in with his jacket on, his bandage missing. He takes a seat behind his desk without looking at you, leans back and crosses his legs — a city thing. He's frowning, going over something in his mind, and you know not to interrupt.

    "You say the fellow's pockets were turned out," he asks.

    "Probably his traveling companion. Why, what is it?"

    "If I'm right," he says, "diphtheria."

    "Diphtheria," you echo, trying it out in your mouth. Endeavor went through an epidemic a few years ago, took half the town. And Montello had that typhus that went through the tannery there, killed all those women. You'll have to enforce quarantine, burn the dead's possessions. But of the disease itself you're mostly ignorant. It kills, that's enough.

    "Don't bother dressing him out," Doc says. "Just get him in the ground. And be damned careful how you handle him."


    The two of you sit there a minute in the cool room, pondering what this means to Friendship. Your thoughts refuse to connect, run together like the cicadas outside, screaming in the trees.

    "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."

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

A Prayer for the Dying 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was amazingly well written! It actually had a consistent mood that was present throughout. It was both historically interesting and haunting at the same time. I will not forget it for along time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm really at a loss for words. It is a powerful, well written book. His writing style is far above any author of his time. The story line is simple, but fantastic at the same time. I couldn't put this book down.
Guest More than 1 year ago
O'Nan has captured the sight, taste, smell and feel of death and human waste in this book. Admittedly, it was the first of his books that I read, but it has remained my very favorite. The use of perspective matched with the ability to paint such detailed pictures with so few words is simply awe-inspiring.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a fan of Onan for years I was truly shocked by the new direction that he took with this book. Amazing. It is not often that one finds a book with such deep themes, and effective metaphors that is also a page turner. The themes and action are so closely entwined that it is the best of both worlds. AND WHAT THEMES! The feeling of death oozes from every line in the book. The only other novels I can think of to accomplish this are Camus (The Plague) and Thomas Mann(Death in Venice). If you are wondering whether or not to order the book then please consider the last time you heard of a book getting compared to the great authors as freely and commonly as this one.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Reading a book as powerful and concise as this, one is left to wonder why, with 5 previous books under his belt and only 38 years of age, the author is relatively unknown. This book leaves me scrambling to catch up on the rest of Mr. O'Nan's work. There are no easy answers for the protagonist Jacob Hansen, rendering him a character one cant help but feel empathetic towards. A most engaging story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It is not always my rule for rating books, but definitely when a book is a quick read, it deserves high praise from me. I must echo my fellow reviewers by saying this book was tragic and deeply moving to say the least. I would recommend this book to anyone including those that had it in their top ten list of horror books.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this book for a literature class I took in 2001. I was amazed by it then and I am still haunted by it today at times. A spectacular example of how an author can keep a reader in the dark - when the reader believes something is true, but that is not the case at all!
Lady_K_92 More than 1 year ago
My husband & I saw this advertised in a horror magazine so I expected it to be a bit more "in your face" kind of horror. It started slow but I figured the pace would pick but it never really did. It's very even keel. The review I read compared Stewart O'Nan to Stephen King - my all time favorite writer. It was less "Carrie" or even "Misery" and more "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon." It's a keeper and I expect to want to read it again in a year or so.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I often pass this on to friends or colleagues...as a rite to perspective. It will certainly move you, and leave you haunted for some time to come.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
3tzmom More than 1 year ago
There are not many modern authors that can write with such art and style. The story line is very moving and draws you in instantly. This is a must read and should be on school reading lists! Words can not capture how wonderful this book is!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This has turned out to be my favorite book of all time. Quite by accident, I picked up 'Wisconsin Death Trip' by Michael Lesy, the same night that I finished ' A Prayer for the Dying'. I nearly fell off my sofa. Trust me....the combination of the two books will leave you reeling!