Posted in A Prayer for the Dying, Stewart O'Nan

Discussion Starters for A Prayer for the Dying

As I reflected on the book and some of the reviews and interviews I read about it, these are the questions that come to my mind.  If anyone has more to add, please do. – Will

1)  A Prayer for the Dying uses as it’s epigraph a quote from Albert Camus: “There is no escape in a time of plague. We must choose to either love or to hate God.”  How does A Prayer for the Dying illustrate this quote?  Do you believe that Camus is correct in presenting the choice we must make in such stark terms?


2) Richard Eder, in his review of A Prayer for the Dying, writes:

[Jacob Hanson, the protagonist] is, he tells us, the town sheriff. He is the minister. He is the undertaker.

This wacky accumulation expresses his obsession: Out of the destruction of the war, when God seemed to have vanished, Jacob is determined to reinvent Him. He cares for his town as God is supposed to care for the world: He punishes transgressions, provides faith for the living and passage for the dead. “Credo quia absurdum” — the classic religious formula of, roughly, “I believe even to absurdity” — becomes, as horrors multiply, its own horror: I believe right on into madness.

What are your feelings about Jacob’s descent into madness?  When did you first recognize that all was not well with him?  Can religious belief become absurd, and do you see evidence of Eder’s contention above in the book?  And, can religious faith not only descend into absurdity, but even madness?


3) Eder also goes on to state, “Clinging to his faith, Jacob disputes it as well. Here is one of his tortured arguments with himself:

” ‘It’s not right,’ you say.

“Who are you angry with?

“Not God

“No? Who else is there? Is this the devil’s work?

“It must be, you think, but uncertainly.”

Eder concludes with, “It is the problem of belief: how to reconcile God with evil. O’Nan carries it further. In Jacob he has the believer, torn. He has God, as well: struggling in despair with the same problem.”

I know that a book discussion forum is too limiting a place for a full expose on the problem of God and evil, but what does O’Nan say about this problem in A Prayer for the Dying


4) Patrick McGrath in his review in the NY Times reminds us of O’Nan’s use of the second person singular and present tense in his writing: 

O’Nan has employed a surprising but ultimately successful narrative technique for Jacob’s story: it is told throughout in the second-person singular and the present tense. Thus Jacob’s references to himself as ”you” have a self-distancing effect; it is as if he doesn’t fully occupy his own being and observes himself from some other place. He is both in his own experience and outside of it. This is a fine perspective for a narrator who will be forced to move from the orderly, predictable contentment of his life in a placid 19th-century farm town to confront the appalling prospect of chaos and destruction as the people around him sicken and die and the brush fires advance ever closer.

Stewart O’Nan once said

“I mean, I could’ve written, I think, Prayer for the Dying, in first person but it probably wouldn’t work nearly as well. This particular character has this overdeveloped sort of superego and it’s always sort of accusing him. No matter how well he’s doing it’s always sort of saying, “You’re screwing up, you’re screwing up, even though he wants to be this perfect, blameless person, so it fits him perfectly.” 

In another interview, O’Nan says:

For A Prayer I needed an intimate narrator capable of fairly hiding things from the reader. So I knew it had to be a first- or second-person, because a third- who’s unreliable is kind of cheating. I tried the first, and it was too close. I was reading Robert O’Connor’s Buffalo Soldiers, written in the second person, and noticed how the voice scourged its owner, tapping him on the shoulder whenever he’s doing wrong, like a conscience or superego. It’s the same use of the second as in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights Big City, or Charles Johnson’s story “Moving Pictures.” And I thought: what effect would that scourging, nagging, blaming voice have if it were inside a man doing everything he could to prevent a terrible, unavoidable catastrophe? Especially a man who loves his town and feels responsible for everything and everyone. And as I wrote further into the story, I noticed that the voice would veer close to Jacob and then stand apart from him, accusing, and that it worked to highlight that gothic split in him of the strange and troubled private side and the solid and responsible public side. The hidden vs. the seen. And it also works as that ceaseless voice in the head of a mad person, the voice that won’t leave him alone.

Did you find this narrative technique to be successful or off-putting?  Did it take a while for you to settle into the book because of O’Nan’s style here?


5)  Mark Winegardner, writing for Barnes and Noble, says:

When I finished Stewart O’Nan’s A Prayer for the Dying . . . 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.

Given some of his actions in the story, Is Jacob Hanson a good man?  Is he a moral man?  Does Hanson believe, as one reviewer has stated, “that the calamity is all his fault.”  Is it even possible to be a good man in a time of madness.


6) In the first chapter we find this bit of dialogue:

“In Heaven you forget everything,” she says. “In Hell they make you remember.”

No, you think, it’s the other way around. “Maybe so,” you say.

Which do you think it is, if either?


7) O’Nan says that the one question underlying all of his work is “When do you give up?” Which, he concedes, “is a horrible question to ask, but it’s a question that a lot of people have to face.” Then, echoing Hamlet’s famous soliloquy on the subject, he adds, “That’s the question.”

Do you see this question reflected in A Prayer for the Dying?  Is this question “the question?”

O’Nan also once stated, “I am primarily a realist and hope to show great empathy for my people without softening the difficult situations they find themselves in-yet my work inevitably veers into the cruel and the sentimental…It is extreme fiction masquerading behind the guise of mainstream realism. I hope it is generous, or, as Cheever said, ‘humane.'”

Is A Prayer for the Dying a humane book despite its extremes?


8) On the last page of the novel Jacob thinks:

“The whole idea of penance is selfish, misguided. 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. And yet it’s not defeat. After everything, you may still be saved. Your mother was wrong; it’s not up to you. It’s always been His decision.”

Ultimately, what does this book say about Divine providence?  Do you agree with Hanson’s statements?



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