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What's The Big Deal About Stewart O'Nan, Anyway?

By Randall Holdridge

MAY 24, 1999: 

A Prayer for the Dying, by Stewart O'Nan (Henry Holt). Cloth, $22.

A FEW YEARS back, the magazine Granta listed Stewart O'Nan among the "20 best American writers under 40." Putting aside the now obligatory inclusion of a handful of names to satisfy demands for "diversity," the Granta editors were clinging to their scuzzy love of what they call "dirty realism," and their oh-so British conception of the United States as seamy, coreless, dysfunctional and violent. Even given their exclusively noir standard, surely the pickings aren't so slight as to require the inclusion of O'Nan.

While Granta's recognition has undoubtedly given O'Nan's career a boost, it's reasonable to speculate whether it hasn't also raised a burden of expectation that the author's intellect is unable to bear. In a defensive on-line essay ("Flannery O'Connor, Meet Stephen King," at bookwire.com), O'Nan can be seen thrashing around inside this heavy mantle. "My complaint might be...that I'm actually a horror writer who's been labeled a literary writer. If I had my choice, I'd rather have the readers."

And yet, he can't resist tying himself in a garbled way to a high-powered list of progenitors: Sartre, Camus, Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor, John Gardner and John Cheever. By contrast, in his much-heralded road novel The Speed Queen, he worked hard to establish his preferred ties to terror-master Stephen King.

More later about the matter of "influences," but first a look at A Prayer for the Dying, his sixth and newest novel, which will gratify neither admirers of King nor O'Connor. The book offers such creepy delights as necrophilia, cannibalism, gruesomely described suicides and O'Nan's signature shotgun slaying, but it drifts along without real narrative tension, and it's never scary. A Prayer for the Dying fiddles around with the question of religious redemption for damaged lives, but the issues aren't thought out, and seem a mere window-dressing of seriousness.

Jacob Hansen is a traumatized Civil War veteran, now married and the father of a baby girl in a rural Wisconsin lumber town called Friendship. He's proud of his conscientious employment as town constable, mortician and preacher--roles which, he reflects, complement one another nicely. His determination to be a righteous man--good husband, neighbor and pastor--are gradually revealed as his atonement for distinctly unrighteous wartime conduct. The peaceful life of Friendship is simultaneously threatened by twin scourges: a diphtheria epidemic which has invaded the hamlet, and a wildfire raging on the outskirts.

Hansen's reformed identity likewise faces dual threats. He falls into torpid indecision as he wavers between the dedicated citizenship of his present and the ruthless pragmatism of his military past. In combination, this spells catastrophe for Friendship.

Hansen clings doggedly to his self-image as town protector and conscience bearer. In an excess of decency, he bleeds and embalms the bodies of diphtheria victims, despite the instructions of the town doctor. This provides occasion for some lurid mortuary scenes, and it also dooms Hansen's wife and child, whom he might have saved. Thoroughly contaminated by the bacteria, he goes about Friendship offering (as it turns out, fatal) support and encouragement, meanwhile witnessing the decimation of both town and congregation.

Outside town is a reclusive religious commune for fallen women, led by an enigmatic evangelist called Chase. Sheriff Hansen sees Chase as a sinister figure, but O'Nan clearly intends his faith as a contrast to Hansen's. Unfortunately, the "Colony" is developed hardly at all. This neglected piece is the great missed opportunity of A Prayer for the Dying, and O'Connor or Gardner would have been all over it. O'Nan is much more interested in what Hansen does with his wife's body behind closed doors, and in dredging up Hansen's grisly war story in a pseudo-psychological twist.

Narrative voice is part of the problem. O'Nan's quirky decision to tell his second-person story from Hansen's limited perspective--a perspective which grows more loony as the pages turn--closes the story off both coming and going. He loses the broad vision which an external viewpoint might have allowed, while denying himself the insights of informed introspection.

Returning to the question of influences on O'Nan's writing, the assertion of his originality by at least one reviewer (Patrick McGrath in The New York Times Book Review) is simply wrongheaded, and just one more piece of critical baggage for an author plaintively searching for the context of his own work, whether as literary writer or horror writer.

A Prayer for the Dying is striking for its lack of originality. The frontier town destroyed by the man who would preserve it surely seems like E.L. Doctorow's Welcome to Hard Times (1960). The wildfire hemming in a village endangered at the same time by internal corruption reads a lot like Town Burning (1959), by Thomas Williams. The summer sounds and skin sensations of A Prayer for the Dying remind one irresistibly of another work of American Gothic, First Love (1996), by Joyce Carol Oates. O'Nan's lakeside hermit surrounded by ducks bears some resemblance to Gary Reed's turtle-handling hermit in Pryor Rendering (1996).

It's a truism that reading is an essential component of a writer's life, and there's no shame in influences; unless, of course, they become a trap rather than an inspiration. If he'd feel easier being Stephen King than Flannery O'Connor, well, why not? "Writing about my own work makes me nervous," O'Nan says. But it just might be that other peoples' writing about his work is making him nervous, too.

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