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From Barnes & NobleThe 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.
"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'?"