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Stewart O'nan Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1961. Education: Boston University, B.S. 1983; Cornell University, M.F.A. 1992. Career: Test engineer, Grummann Aerospace Corporation, Bethpage, New York, 1984-88; writer. Awards: Ascent Fiction prize, 1988; Columbia Fiction award, 1989; Drue Heinz Prize for Literature, 1993; William Faulkner prize, 1993; named one of America's Best Young Novelists, Granta, 1996. Agent: Georges Borchardt, Inc., 136 East 57th Street, New York, New York 10022, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Snow Angels. New York, Doubleday, 1994.

The Names of the Dead. New York, Doubleday, 1996.

The Speed Queen. New York, Doubleday, 1997.

A World Away. New York, Henry Holt, 1998.

A Prayer for the Dying. New York, Henry Holt, 1999.

The Circus Fire. New York, Doubleday, 2000.

Short Stories

In the Walled City. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993.

Other

Transmission. Colorado Springs, Colorado, Arjuna, 1987.

Editor, On Writers and Writing by John Gardner. Reading, Massachusetts, Addison-Wesley, 1994.

Editor, The Vietnam Reader: The Definitive Collection of American Fiction and Nonfiction on the War. New York, Anchor, 1998.

* * *

Stewart O'Nan calls himself a horror writer, although his novels have not been marketed as such. Indeed, the spread of O'Nan's reputation as a novelist has been complicated, perhaps slowed, by his admirable refusal to write to a niche market. Each of his novels differs in length, approach, and subject matter from the one before it. "If there is an audience out there for me," O'Nan told Publishers Weekly, "I want them to be surprised when the next book comes out."

Yet a recurring truth of O'Nan's fictional universe, as in John Irving's, is that horrible things happen to people, often without warning or reason. The suffering protagonist of O'Nan's strongest novel, A Prayer for the Dying, observes, "It's astonishing how quickly things fall apart." That the human responses to such horrors are infinitely varied helps explain the diversity of O'Nan's novels to date. It's as if O'Nan, a Grumman engineer before he turned to writing full time, were doggedly testing to destruction character after character, to see what shapes the fragments take.

Partially because his novels offer none of Irving's Dickensian comforts, no layers of Victorian-era Turkish delight to sweeten their horrors, O'Nan—like two of his novelist heroes, Flannery O'Connor and Stephen King—has been accused of coldness, of cruelty. But there is much to admire, too, in O'Nan's determination repeatedly to tackle the stark fact of mortality, and in his ability to do so with such chameleon-like virtuosity. Underscoring O'Nan's achievement as a novelist to date is another stark fact: he is not yet forty years old.

O'Nan's first novel, Snow Angels, details the tragic events leading up to the death of a dissatisfied young wife and mother, Annie Marchand, at the hands of her tormented husband, Glenn. Annie's decline and fall are narrated by a neighbor, Artie Parkinson, a teenager at the time of the events. For Artie, the story of Annie, his former baby sitter, is inextricably linked to his own coming of age—his parents ' divorce, his first fumbling romance, his complex feelings for this troubled but alluring older woman. O'Nan adopted a broader canvas in his next novel, The Names of the Dead, in which Vietnam veteran Larry Markham, already burdened by decades of guilt and by his attempts to salvage his unhappy marriage, finds himself and his family stalked by an even more troubled veteran, an ex-Special Forces psychopath named Creeley. The novel alternates the present-day story with chapters detailing Markham's Vietnam experience; the realism and power of these sequences are especially notable as O'Nan was still a child when the war ended.

As if in rebellion against the narrative complexity of his first two novels, O'Nan then produced The Speed Queen, the lean, mean, blackly comic Death Row memoir of a white-trash spree killer named Marjorie Standiford, whose nickname gives the novel its title. Marjorie is doggedly tape-recording her answers to 114 questions submitted by the unnamed best-selling horror writer who has contracted to write a non-fiction book about her bloody exploits; indeed, O'Nan's original title for the novel was Dear Stephen King. Marjorie's well-imagined voice and the somewhat tricky question-and-answer format—in which the reader is left to deduce the questions "answered" by the numbered sections—are ultimately more interesting than the glorified-outlaw plot, which Oliver Stone's film Natural Born Killers already had pushed about as far as it could go.

A World Away, O'Nan's much more deliberately paced fourth novel, echoes The Names of the Dead in its exploration of battlefields both foreign and domestic. The focus is on the World War II home front as represented by the Langer family. Both husband James and wife Anne are unfaithful; James's father is aged and infirm; adolescent son Jay is sullen and rebellious; and older son Rennie, who already has scandalized the family by becoming a conscientious objector, is now missing in action as a medic in the Pacific. Eventually Rennie comes home, as do his young wife and infant child, but the homecoming brings traumas of its own. O'Nan's working title was Fear Itself, perhaps an ironic comment on New Deal optimism; he describes the novel as an "American pastoral" in purposeful contrast to the gleaming excesses of The Speed Queen.

Yet the pastoral mode can hold horrors aplenty, as O'Nan abundantly demonstrates in his fifth novel, A Prayer for the Dying—inspired, O'Nan says, by Michael Lesy's haunting 1973 classic Wisconsin Death Trip, which documents the grim reality of small-town nineteenth-century America. Having in earlier novels probed the psychic scars of Vietnam and World War II veterans, O'Nan here focuses on Civil War veteran Jacob Hansen, who, despite traumatic, guilt-ridden flashbacks, has managed to establish a quiet, rewarding life with his wife and baby daughter in the small, isolated town of Friendship, Wisconsin—a town Jacob serves in three roles: sheriff, minister, and undertaker. Jacob soon has more than he can handle in each of these jobs, as a drifter's body turns out to be infected with diphtheria. The resulting epidemic kills most of the townsfolk, including Jacob's wife and daughter, and a rampaging forest fire claims those few spared by the disease. At novel's end, only Jacob is left to walk through the ruins of his town, his life and, perhaps, his faith.

Some readers found A Prayer for the Dying unbearably bleak, the book of Job minus the happy ending. Others were put off by O'Nan's uncharacteristic use of second-person narration, as Jacob essentially talks to himself as "you" throughout the novel. Some, too, complained about O'Nan's occasional Gothic excess, as when Jacob, deranged by grief, play-acts at happy domesticity with the corpses of his wife and daughter. Yet the risks O'Nan takes in A Prayer for the Dying are those of a first-rate novelist whose apprenticeship is over. The climactic fire that engulfs Friendship and a fleeing refugee-laden locomotive is a set piece worthy of Melville: suspenseful, poetic, thematically rich. Beautifully structured and imagined, filled with resonant imagery and compelling prose, A Prayer for the Dying, like the best fiction of O'Connor and King, lingers for months in the reader's head, continuing to disturb, to pose unanswerable questions about God, death, and fate. Readers may differ about what will become of Jacob amid the ashes, but few doubt that O'Nan will continue to enthrall, enrich, and disturb for many novels to come.

Andy Duncan

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