"A Prayer For Owen Meany"

A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving

This is a story of friendship, faith, doubt, the sad state of American society, and a whole lot of strange circumstances that (almost) all get neatly explained at the end. I haven't decided yet if it's a little too neat.

John Wheelwright (the narrator) was just a young boy when his best friend, Owen Meany, swung his bat and hit the baseball that struck and killed John's mother. Neither ever played baseball again, but they remained best friends until the end of Owen's life.

Owen is unusual, freakishly small with a high pitched voice. He is very bright and has a prophetic gift that reveals to him the exact date on which he is going to die. Owen has a strong belief in God. As a child he was told by his parents that his was a virgin birth and the author draws several other comparisons to Christ later in the novel. He sees more than ordinary people and seems to understand all; the phrase "instrument of God" is used several times. Every word Owen speaks is written in capital letters, weighting them with importance much like the words of Jesus in a red letter Bible. To me it felt like he was yelling all the time.  

There is a lot going on here. It's a complicated story, full of mysteries, miracles and a few mother issues. As the boys reach adulthood, the Vietnam war begins and Owen enlists because he believes that is where he has to die. Wanting to keep John out of the war, he does a gruesome amputation of John's index finger so he won't pass the medical. I'm not sure what purpose this scene had because he could have gone to Canada with other draft resistors if he didn't want to fight. In the end he rejected the American way of life and moved to Canada anyway so that bit of drama seems, no pun intended, pointless.

I found some of it to be a bit over the top. For instance, Owen keeps the late Mrs. Wheelwright's dressmaker dummy beside his bed - right beside, where he can touch it - all his life, even as an adult. In reality we would think someone who did that crazy, not special. In another instance, when they are still boys in Sunday School the kids like to lift the diminutive Owen and stick him in high places. He doesn't like it and insists they take him down but when the teacher comes in she blames Owen. Every time. There are other things but I don't want to be too picky.

Both Johns, the narrator and the author, seem spellbound by Owen. His friend believes in him, believes there is something special, even other-worldly, about him. When his mother is killed by Owen's unlucky hit, John doesn't experience any anger or hard feelings toward him at all. When the novel ends, he is still asking God to send Owen back. Is his love for Owen more than friendship? Maybe. Read it and tell me what you think.  

I found John's smug tone toward anyone who thinks differently than he does monotonous.  As a student he feels superior to the teachers; as a teacher he feels superior to the students. When Owen dies (not a spoiler - it's obvious from the beginning that he dies) he strongly objects to Owen's parents being at their son's funeral. This young man, who has never raised a child, somehow feels his own grief is more valid than theirs and that he has a right to be there and they don't. Compassion and understanding for Owen are urged throughout the story, but there isn't much of it shown for others.

I get the feeling John is trying to teach us something that he thinks we should already know but he doubts we are capable of learning. There's a condescending tone that wears thin by the end, but it is a fascinating story with interesting characters, and it's a pretty good social commentary on the times. It has an overall melancholy feel, with some comic relief, though for me the funny parts were some of the saddest. This book left me conflicted. I disliked some aspects of it, but still have to say I liked it, maybe even loved it. What I like best is that it does what few books do anymore, it surprises. It is well worth reading. 


Anonymous said...

This is one of my favourite books by Irving (pipped perhaps by Cider House Rules and Twisted River). I think his ability to do exactly what you said at the end of your review - dislike characters but nonetheless love the book - is part of his amazing skill as a writer.

Ordinary Reader said...

I haven't read either of those but "The World According To Garp" is sitting on my shelf waiting. I'm interested to see what it's like, because as I said I'm conflicted about this one. I thought it was a bit much, but I loved the reading experience. The guy knows how to tell a story.

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