A Prayer for Owen Meany
by: John Irving(William Morrow and Co: 1989, 543pp.)
“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” (13)
So begins the first-person account of a friendship between two 11-yr. old boys coming of age in a small New Hampshire town in the Vietnam War era.
Owen Meany, the hero of the narrative is very small for his age and bears the stigma of a freakish voice that never changes. But he possesses a strong belief in destiny. For him there are no accidents. Everything serves a purpose, including his tiny stature and his voice. When the mother of his best friend (John, the narrator of the story) is ‘accidentally’ killed by a baseball he hits, Owen is all the more committed to the idea that his hands are God’s hands to do with as He pleases. His belief is corroborated by key visions and dreams of what he will accomplish in his life. He lives to fulfill this destiny, which the reader doesn’t picture in its entirety until the final pages of this 543 page book, where Owen’s stature and voice play a key role in the heroic saving of others’ lives.
Along the way Owen’s faith mystifies and challenges all he meets. His unconventional re-enactment of the Christ child in a nativity play confirm the reader’s suspicion that this character is a type of Christ—coming into the world to sacrifice himself for others. His wordless but authoritative role as ‘the ghost-of-Christmas-yet-to-come’ in Dicken’s “Christmas Carol” play establish him as something of a prophet in his own community. He becomes known as ‘The Voice’ as he takes on an editorial column in the local school paper, intent on exposing injustices, challenging the status-quo and fomenting change. Through this character John Irving exemplifies the stubborn vision and courage that typify a person of strong faith.
His best friend, John, is by contrast skeptical. His view is captured in this quote: “You’re always telling me I don’t have any faith,” I wrote to Owen. “Well—don’t you see?...that’s a part of what makes me so indecisive. I wait to see what will happen next…because I don’t believe that anything I might decide to do would matter.”(446 ) As narrator, John is artfully portrayed in both the present action of the story and in his future life as an English teacher in Toronto, Canada where he ends up after ingenuously avoiding the draft, thanks to Owen’s courage and foresight. As an adult, he is critical of American politics, opposed to the War, and cautiously committed to belief in God as he reminisces about Owen’s miraculous life. This retrospective point of view enables the author to interject statistics and describe political tensions of the times surrounding the Vietnam War and the Iran-Contra affair of which the young friends would not have been fully aware, making the book a not-too-subtle platform for his rants on these and other issues, including TV!
The strength of A Prayer for Owen Meany is in its well-formed characters and dialogue. Irving’s attention to life-like details in presenting his characters and his method of moving the story-line along by interjecting realistic conversations between them, make the less believable and bizarre events of the story more credible. The story-line is unfortunately plagued with content of a sexual nature, which arguably is a real-life factor in a teenager’s life but is excessive in this reviewer’s opinion and may be offensive to some readers.
John Irving’s story is clearly based on first-hand research and life experience, allowing us to see inside the varied occupations of quarry workers, English professors, and even Army body escorts while drawing from his own childhood in New Hampshire and teaching career. He keeps his readers well-tantalized with unanswered questions that make the lengthy 543 pages slip by. His reflections on faith as inspired by Owen’s life and death make this a story you won’t soon forget.