Monday, August 04, 2008

A Prayer for the Dying - a review

A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan

"No blood on his filthy undershirt, no bullet holes, no bowie knife slipped between his 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" are Jacob the constable, Jacob the preacher, Crazy Jacob the undertaker. The narrator of A Prayer For the Dying, by Stewart O'Nan. Jacob wears a lot of hats in friendship, but he doesn't mind. He loves friendship, loves the people, and sees each of his jobs as a way to take care of "his" town.

"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."

Friendship, however, is about to be taken away from Jacob. Diphtheria has come to Friendship in the form of a nameless tramp. Austin Phillips, Millie and Elso Sullivan, Jim Brist, Hilma Tockstad, are all dead within the span of two days. Besides Diphtheria, a fire on the plains is eating up Wisconsin in big gulps. Devouring whole towns.

"Just outside of town, a swallow drops from the sky, plummets into the sere cornfield beside you. You turn in time to see a whole flock falling, bending the dead stalks, thumping into the dust like hail, a rain of stones. They come down around you, their soft bodies pelting your back. They cover the road, dead yet perfect. When you bend to touch one, its feathers are hot, it's eye boiled white."

A Prayer for the Dying
leaves you on the railroad tracks of causality, with the freight train of God's Will bearing down on you. Like the certainty of an anvil hammering Wiley Coyote into the desert floor in a Road Runner cartoon. Like poor Job, struck with boils, ruined financially, his family slain. All to prove the point of a bet. In both the Book of Job and the Warner Brothers cartoons, however, the protagonists get up after their punishment and dust themselves off.

There's no magic in Jacob's world. No wishes granted, no mistakes unmade. Jacob lives in a real world, lovingly rendered. There are more than four colors, but fewer than infinite choices. His world is circumscribed by mortality and fire and disease and weakness.

"Clytie reminds you of those horses you owe your life to, the ones your regiment ate raw from the inside out those long weeks, sleeping between their empty ribs while the Reb shells whined all night. Clytie makes you think of the nameless friends you had to load into wagons like sides of meat, of how small you are, how weak."

Is Jacob's faith made greater by this juxtaposition with harsh reality, or more barren for it's lack of fruit? Jacob can't afford Job's passive acceptance of God's will. Jacob has to make choices. Whether to quarantine the town, whether to send his wife and child away. Who to save when the sky is raining ash and par broiled birds. What to do when the town next over blocks him from doing so, standing in the road with guns and masks while the fire rages around them.

"You can't bargain with God, buy him with pieties. This is what you've found out-that even with the best intentions, even with all of your thoughtful sermons and deep feelings and good works, you can't save anyone, least of all yourself."

This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.

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