June 11, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

A Prayer for the Dying

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In Season
Stewart O'Nan

T.C. Boyle, author of the National Book Award finalist Drop City, recommends Stewart O’Nan’s 1999 novel A Prayer for the Dying (Picador, $13).

This is a magical, frightening book, set in the bucolic town of Friendship, Wis., just after the Civil War. The lyricism of the natural descriptions, of the peace and beauty of the environment, lull the reader into an expansive sense of well-being, even as the insidious beat of unease creeps between the lines — a diphtheria epidemic is poised to winnow the town under the arching sun of midsummer. The protagonist — the town’s overworked sheriff, who trebles as preacher and undertaker — discovers the body of the first victim, a tramp in his worn army uniform, and from there the contagion reaches out to snatch from him everything he holds dear. ”Harrowing” doesn’t begin to describe it.

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