“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
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, Stewart O'Nan's A Prayer for the Dying examines the effect of madness and violence on the morality of a once-decent man.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:February 4, 1961
Place of Birth:Pittsburgh, PA
Education:B.S., Aerospace Engineering, Boston University, 1983; M.F.A., Cornell University, 1992
Read an Excerpt
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 minié 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?"
"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.
Excerpted from "A Prayer For The Dying"
Copyright © 1999 Stewart O'Nan.
Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
About this Guide
The following author biography and list of questions about A Prayer for the Dying are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach A Prayer for the Dying.
1. The book is narrated in the second person, addressing the main character, Jacob, as "you." Who is speaking? Why do you think the author chose this mode to tell the story?
2. When Jacob is called to take care of Clytie, he has a very hard time pulling the trigger. Look at the passage (p. 49) in which he has to convince himself to kill her. Why does he agonize when he knows it's the right thing? What does it mean that he's "still clinging to some dream of innocence, blamelessness"? Does he continue to cling to that dream later in the story?
3. Why does Jacob elect to bleed and treat the bodies of some victims, even after Doc has told him not to, and even though he knows he's putting himself in danger? Why is precision and diligence so important to him even when everyone around him is worried only about survival?
4. What role does religious faith play in the story? How does it influence Jacob, Chase, and other citizens of Friendship? Is their faith rewarded?
5. Jacob is a veteran of the Civil War. How does his experience there affect the way he behaves in the crisis in Friendship? How did the war change him?
6. How would you describe the relationship between Jacob and Doc? How do their different ideas about the world lead to different strategies for handling the outbreak in Friendship?
7. How does Jacob's relationship with Marta affect his behavior in the outbreak? How do his priorities as a father and husband conflict with his responsibility to the town?
8. How do you interpret the book's ending? What is Jacob choosing when he returns to Friendship? What do you imagine happening to him next?
9. Is Jacob sane at the end of the book? How does the author demonstrate the changes in his mind as conditions worsen?
10. "You've stopped believing in evil," the narrator says of Jacob early in the story (p. 6). "Is that a sin?" Is there evil in this story? Does Jacob come to see it by the end?
11. How do the book's two epigraphs relate to each other? Why do you think the author chose them?
12. Jacob is committed throughout the book to saving Friendship, and willing to sacrifice himself if necessary. Is he naïve? Does his commitment to principle do more harm than good in the end?