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Issue 90 - American Gothic

Whisky Magazine Issue 90
September 2010


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American Gothic

Jefferson Chase looks at another whiskey laden tome.

Never read anything like it is probably one of the most over-used phrases in reference to books. Indeed, I suspect we like most stories precisely because they remind us of things we have liked in the past.

Stewart O'Nan's 1999 novel A Prayer for the Dying is the exception. Set in small-town Wisconsin shortly after the end of the American Civil War, this book is shockingly original. It takes place in a utopian community called Friendship that has the misfortune of being in the way of raging summer wildfires. And that's not by no means the worst of the hamlet's worries.

People start developing a mysterious illness and dying, causing the local physician to summon sheriff-undertaker-preacher Jacob Hansen to his office to break some bad news.

“Guess I better wire down the line and let Bart know,” you say, but it's a question. You're hoping Doc will back off and say he could be mistaken, that the woman's symptoms could be anything.Diphtheria kills quick, that's the one thing you know. You think of what the woman said – He takes the little ones first. “Yep,” Doc says, halfdistracted, and sighs, an admission of failure. “I guess you'd better.”

One of the startling things about this novel is that it's written in the second-person. We readers are the protagonist Hansen, and there's nothing good in store for us.

The Hansen character we're invited to inhabit is thoroughly noble, a pious helper of his fellow man and a loyal servant of his community. But as the plague ...

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