Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Prayer for Owen Meany—A review

While my reading tastes are heavily weighted toward fantasy, horror, history, and military non-fiction, one cannot subsist on a diet of magic, mayhem, and combat alone. At least I can’t, which means that I occasionally dip into other genres as well.

John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989, Ballantine Books) had been on my to-read list for some time. Now that I’ve completed it, I’m very glad I made the effort. At first I debated reviewing it here on The Silver Key, which is dedicated to “all things fun and fantastic.” But a few things led me, in the end, to do so: 1) It concerns miracles, so it kind of fits; 2) It’s a great book and worth talking about; and 3) This is my own ill-defined blog and therefore have license to write about what I want to :).

I typically treat the books I’m reading with zealous care. But since my copy of A Prayer for Owen Meany came pre-beat up and creased (I bought it for pennies at a church fair), I took the rare, luxurious, and lazy opportunity to dog-ear those pages that I thought contained a memorable passage or were otherwise worth returning to or writing about. By the end of A Prayer for Owen Meany I had bent the corners of more than a dozen, and could have marred many more, but I started feeling badly about the wanton damage I was inflicting. It really is a great book.

A Prayer for Owen Meany tells the story of two classmates and good friends growing up in the late 1950s/60s in the small New Hampshire town of Gravesend. It’s told from the viewpoint of John Wheelwright, a smart but self-conscious kid struggling with his identity and trying to find his way. Wheelwright grows up not knowing who his father is, and when his mother dies early in the book from a tragic accident he’s left parentless and drifting, in the care of his grandmother and stepfather. He vows to discover his biological dad’s true identity. Both in a literal and spiritual sense, it’s a trip to find his (and the) father.

But the main character of the book is Meany. He’s a precocious, diminutive boy-genius with an oddly high-pitched voice (Irving uses a CAPS LOCK style to convey his dialogue). And he’s not just physically different, but morally and spiritually special as well. Meany is convinced that he is God’s instrument and believes he knows the date and details of his own death. Because of his faith and his precognition, he’s blessed with a wisdom far beyond his years, and he knows that his life has a purpose and a meaning. He does not fear the end. His favorite passage from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, It seems to me the most strange that men should fear; Seeing that death, a necessary end, Will come when it will come.

Meany’s charisma and ability to unsettle with his spiritual insights invites comparisons with Christ, though in other ways he remains firmly grounded, an out of place kid struggling with odd parents, girls, a demanding job in a granite quarry, and the difficulties of academic life. In short, he’s a wonderfully drawn and memorable character.

Through Meany, Irving explores the nature of religious faith, which ultimately requires that we put ourselves in the hands of a higher power, one we cannot see with our own eyes on this earth. It’s a hard thing to embrace. “Faith based on evidence is no faith at all,” Meany explains. And also: “Faith takes practice.” Wheelwright constantly struggles with his own faith, but Meany makes him a believer.

In addition to its spiritual themes, A Prayer for Owen Meany is firmly a “baby boomer” novel. Irving uses it to explore the grand events of that generation, including the sweeping optimism surrounding the election of John F. Kennedy, JFK’s subsequent fall from grace (his rumored affair with Marilyn Monroe), and his eventual assassination. Of central importance to the novel is the Vietnam War. Wheelwright is a bitter, dyed-in-the-wool liberal who loses his faith in America due to the war and eventually flees to Canada to evade the draft. Though Meany is also skeptical of our ultimate objective, he accepts his duty to his country and enlists, much to the dismay of his anti-war friends. Later in his life (Owen Meany is told through a series of flashbacks), Wheelwright voices a similar disgust for the presidency of Ronald Regan and that administration’s involvement in the Iran-Contra affair.

The carnage of Vietnam and Kennedy’s unfortunate fall represented a loss of innocence for the U.S. Framed by these larger events, Wheelwright and Meany suffer the smaller but equally poignant losses of their childhood, including the death of loved ones, and the revelation that their idols and role-models—parents, teachers, priests, even Presidents—are deeply flawed, weak, fraudulent, and all too human. But the miracle of Meany’s life gives us hope that something better awaits in the hereafter.


David J. West said...

I like the review Brian, I'd heard of this for years but never got round to it.

Scott D said...

Brian, loved this review! Owen Meany is one of my favorite books, and I appreciate the opportunity to revisit it here.

Brian Murphy said...

David: Yes, I was in the same boat too, only in my case Owen Meany had been sitting on my bookshelf for probably two years in my "to be read" slush pile, collecting dust. I finally committed to reading it and I certainly don't regret it.

Scott: Thanks a lot!

Eric D. Lehman said...

Great review, Brian! I read this a few years back - certainly John Irving's best. And if you are not moved by that ending...you are not human.

crazyred said...

Owen and the grandmother watching Liberace on TV, one of my favorite scenes. Great post!