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Forget ‘Wife,’ go straight to ‘Prayer for Dying’

July, 1 2011
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@dcn.davis.ca.us

“A Reliable Wife” (2009) by Robert Goolrick was a disappointment – a Victorian potboiler without much bite: repetitive and predictable. How did it become a bestseller? The real deal was “A Prayer for the Dying” by Stewart O’Nan (1999) – a book that I read years ago and have not stopped thinking about.

The inspiration for both writers was Michael Lesy’s nonfiction “Wisconsin Death Trip” (1973). O’Nan produced an unforgettable novel inspired by Lesy’s work while Goolrick produced a “lite” novel.

Lesy broke new ground in the early ‘70s when he did something relatively simple – he found a cache of photographs and combined them with newspaper articles describing life in rural Wisconsin at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. His photographs included babies in caskets, weddings, portraits of farmers and town leaders. The book is still in print.

In those days, life for many people was bleak beyond measure. Today, people seem surprised that life was so difficult. Why are we surprised? People in rural American in the 1880s were desperately poor, medicine was primitive, daily life required physical labor from men, women and children, and there was precious little in the way of culture.

O’Nan read Lesy and then wrote a novel about one man’s life in the small town of Friendship, Wis., as it was consumed by a drought, a diphtheria epidemic and a prairie fire.

“Prayer for the Dying” is riveting. I read it once, quickly, then read it again. Not for the faint-hearted. Not, for instance, for those who loved “A Reliable Wife.”

“Wife” describes a woman, Catherine Land, who answers an advertisement placed by a wealthy Wisconsin small-town businessman. She is not what she appears to be. She’s a gold-digger. She marries the lonely man and then tries to murder him but you know what? My interest in the people involved just kind of seeped away. He reads articles from the paper about people who commit suicide and murder and it doesn’t seem to touch him or her.

“Mesmerizing” the Chicago Sun-Times blurbs the paperback edition of “Wife.” I’m thinking, who are you kidding? “Boring” would be a better description.

Yet, I understand what Goolrick was trying to do. He was trying to build a story off the desperation described by Lesy. But he failed. The novel to read is “A Prayer for the Dying.”

The Civil War veteran who is trying to live a normal life in Friendship is Jacob Hansen, local undertaker and constable. The way I read it, Jacob was not pure of heart. I understood (it is not spelled out) that he survived the war by a little cannibalism. That ugly secret might have accounted for his ultra-responsible reaction to all the terrible things that happened in his town. The story follows Jacob as he picks up bodies, works with the town doctor, and administers to his own wife and daughter when they die. Could it be that this most helpful man is in fact the carrier of the disease?

Clearly he is coming unhinged as he washes his dead wife’s hair and dances -- her body in his arms -- around their little home. OMG.

O’Nan is a masterful writer. He took the inspiration provided by Lesy and wrote a powerful, powerful book. Goolrick was far less successful, but then it was his first novel. He might have been more successful had he had not pulled any punches.

Elisabeth Sherwin.

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