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A Prayer for the Dying - Stewart O'Nan

The paperback cover carries a blurb: “A cross between Stephen Crane and Stephen King.” Maybe. It is a post-Civil War tale in that the protagonist is haunted by his memories of the war, memories that are revealed slowly, then differently. (It’s challenging to write about this one without revealing spoilers—and there’s no good reason to spoil a really good story). But I’ll come back to that quote.

It’s told in the second–person, a perspective that requires some accommodation. (Did you know you survived the CW? Did you know you resumed civilian life in the bucolic Friendship, Wisconsin among good friends, mostly good people, and become a man of faith, doing right by everyone, even those who, perhaps, deserved less consideration? Did you know you had an adoring wife, one you also adore, and a beautiful infant daughter? Did you know what a good person you are?) O’Nan makes the second-person narrative work—no easy feat. You participate in the narrative; you’re not allowed to merely observe. You are implicated. Well-done. Rural serenity succumbs to chaos. Memory encounters The Real. The slow country walk becomes the frantic, desperate run. You are caught up, running for your life and from your life. Bravo!

Other reviewers have mentioned it, and I’ll second the notion, this novel bears a resemblance to Cormac McCarthy—albeit, Cormac McCarthy-Lite. In no way is that comment an insult to O’Nan; he merely has a different story to tell.

To return to that cover blurb—I couldn’t help thinking: this isn’t so much a Crane/King story, although it might be—I’m too unfamiliar with King to make the comparison. Instead, I had this nagging feeling, initially, that I was reading Marilynne Robinson—a story begun by MR and finished by Cormac McCarthy. Could you ask for a more unlikely combo?