Thursday, October 11, 2012
A Prayer for Owen Meany ~ John Irving
So, Owen Meany. Like A Cider House Rules, this classic of Irving's is long and ponderous, but in a good way. The story rambles around a little, being told in memories, alternating between the innocent fifties and sadly cynical and selfish sixties, and 1988, when the narrator is writing. It tells the story of Owen Meany, a boy unlike others - intelligent, precocious, self-confident (he writes only in caps), the one-time star of both the Christmas play and A Christmas Carol (as the Ghost of Christmas yet to come, not old Scrooge), prophetic, unintentionally murderous (he kills his best friend's mom with a stray baseball), and did I mention that he's short? Because the first thing you notice about Owen is that he's tiny, doll-like, easily lifted and passed about, and doesn't get much taller as he grows into adulthood. The next thing you notice is that his voice is stuck in a perpetual scream. Of course, it's all for a meaning.
The story is told by Owen's loving, even adoring friend, Johnny Wheelwright. Their friendship dynamic is a strange one. Johnny is "normal" compared to Owen, comes from old money, has a grandmother who is respected throughout town and a young, vivacious mother. Owen is strange and off-putting, the son of a mentally ill, reclusive mother and a nice enough, but strange father who is invested in a failing business. Yet, throughout their long friendship, it is Johnny who seems constantly to be the sidekick, despite his obvious superiority (in a schoolyard kind of way that is). Owen loves Johnny, that much is sure - he often seems to be looking out for Johnny's interests above his own, but is almost a teacher or mentor that Johnny is trying to impress. Of course, Johnny writes about their friendship long after the fact, so I don't discount the effect of time and distance, and the idealizing effects they can have. Even so it's an odd but refreshing dynamic.
The story is not very plot-based - like I said, it rambles, drifts in and out of memories, and can be very impressionistic. It is the story of a person and a friendship, though don't go thinking it's all about Owen and Johnny - there's a wide cast of characters and they all have their own stories. It's one of those novels that you read when you just want to relax and immerse yourself in somebody else's life. Interestingly, the title did not make sense to me until a couple of hundred pages in, when I realized that Owen's dialogue was all in caps because that's how he chose to write, not because of his scream-voice. Not that it didn't make sense to me before, I just thought it was more straightforward than it was. I thought it meant the book was about a prayer given for Owen Meany, or something like that - I hadn't really thought about it - and yes, many prayers are given for Owen throughout the book. But really, and this can be contested, I think that the book itself is the prayer, a tribute from Johnny to his old friend, an eternal hope for him. As such, it is very beautiful.
All in all, it was a great novel, and I look forward to continuing to read through Irving's backlist. He really is a masterful storyteller. It's hard to believe I've only read two of his novels.
A cryptic note to those who have read the book: I think Owen is exactly what he thinks he is. What say you?
I read A Prayer for Owen Meany for the Classics Challenge - 3 down, 47 to go!