A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Published 1990; 543 pages
Writing from his home in Toronto, Canada in 1987, John Wheelwright narrates the story of his childhood. Peppering his narrative with frequent diary entries in which he chronicles his outrage against the behavior of the Ronald Reagan administration in the late 1980s, Wheelright tells the story of his early life in Gravesend, New Hampshire, when his best friend was Owen Meany, who he remembers as the boy who accidentally killed Wheelwright's mother and made Wheelright believe in God. The narrative of A Prayer for Owen Meany does not follow a perfect chronology, as John pieces together the story he wants to tell.
The book started off slow, and I felt at times that I was slogging through it. This feeling was probably because, for the first hundred pages or so, the book would backtrack. For thirty pages, Irving would cover Owen Meany's childhood in one chain of interrelated events, and then another after. The chains never crossed and seemed separate from each other, and the constant running back to the beginning made it seem like I was going nowhere.
After the intial chapters, the book began to take on a more orderly timeline (not without multiple long-winded digressions), and I began to get a bit more interested. As the plot moved along, the intensity of the writing became flurried, and it seemed like Irving was struggling to fit everything he wanted to say into the space he needed. But after the climax finally happened, the last hundred and fifty pages or so were very tranquil and dull, and in my opinion, not a good way to finish any book, especially this one.
One thing I really didn't understand was why Irving chose to intersperse the narrative with modern-day journal entries. While John's diatribes on the Reagan administration were interesting, but hardly seemed important to the story. In fact, those 1980's journal entries only made what could have been a very good book terrible. (I'll explain how later on.)
I think that what I really had a problem with (initially) was Irving's style. I really didn't like it. Because all of the vague details he put into the narrative weren't important until the last hundred pages, it often seemed that he was rambling for no reason—painting a portrait of Owen Meany that was too detailed.
There were also too many semicolons. Don't get me wrong, I like semicolons—they're a misunderstood piece of punctuation. But a semicolon in five out of six sentences is a little excessive, in my opinion. (And actually, there are only two sentences on the back cover of my copy. Both of them make use of a semicolon!)
Continuing down that line of thought, the back of my book declares that A Prayer for Owen Meany is "John Irving's most comic novel; yet Owen Meany is Mr Irving's most heartbreaking character." Having never read anything else by the author, I can't definitely agree with the latter half of that, but I will admit that Owen Meany's story was rather, well, tragic, especially if you look at what happened to his best friend after he died. But if this book is Irving's "most comic" novel, then I'm not sure I want to read anything else of his, since his other books will most likely be more than a bit less "comic" than this one.
A Prayer for Owen Meany is not funny. Like any book, there were moments where I laughed; the Christmas Pageant at the Episcopalian Church was amusing. And there was one instance where Owen Meany was making fun of Catholics (out of the hundreds of times he did so) that I laughed. That was it. It isn't an entirely depressing book, but it certainly isn't "comic", and the fact that it's being advertised as such is slightly worrying.
However, Owen Meany, though not "comic", was a very likeable character, especially before the ill-fated baseball game. The image of a tiny, high-pitched little boy who was so very literal in everything, is good. His interactions with John were interesting, and I really wondered how John and Owen had ever gotten to be best friends, as that was never explained in the book. Owen did lose a bit of his appeal after the baseball game, but his career in high school as "The Voice" brought things back around. But after Owen and John started college, the story really began to go flat, though Irving's writing did get better.
I find it very interesting that in the beginning, when the characters and narrative were so good, that Irving's writing was terribly hard to wade through, and that as the plot progressively died, the actual writing got better (even though nothing else did).
My main issue with this book is what it's supposed to mean for John. For Owen Meany, his "miracle" meant the fulfillment of the visions God had given him, that his parents had spurred into being when he was eleven years old. But what did the "miracle" mean for John, the one who was left behind? In the opening sentence, Irving established that John is a Christian because of Owen Meany—that does sound promising. Yet the Reagan-era journal entries show a man who lives entirely in the past, who hasn't forgiven, who hasn't moved on. What, then, was the point of Owen Meany's life, if he affected his best friend in such a way, if his best friend chose to take the "miracle" he witnessed and turn it into a source of resentment? That outcome was not what Owen would have wanted for his best friend, I don't think.
If the author had left off with those "twenty years later" bits, the book would have seemed a bit more deserving, yet I think John Irving would have known that. Anyone who can write a completely non-chronological plot like this is obviously not stupid, and has been gifted with even a tiny helping of intuition as to what does and does not work in a novel. So why include it? To show the reader the futility of Owen Meany's life? That's hardly the sort of book I would like to read, and all of the readers out there who use books as a form of escapism aren't going to like that either—those readers want happy endings.
All this to say that I am tentatively rating this book a 2/5. I certainly didn't hate it—not by any means. But I didn't really like it while I was reading it. (I do find that after I finish a book, my opinion of it usually gets better, so that in hingsight I never hate a book, but that does tend to make me an unreliable reviewer if it's been more than a week since I've finished the book.) I'm positive I won't read it again, and, only because I'm not a huge fan of Irving's style, reading other books of his are not high on my priority list.
I can appreciate the complexities of the plot, and found Owen Meany's character and purpose to be truly likable and interesting. The scene where Owen saved John from the draft was wonderful, as was the end-scene, where he died. Yet a pile-up of little things snowballed into an avalance, and I found that the book wasn't as good as I'd expected.
A Prayer for Owen Meany is on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, and I do recommend reading it, as I'm of the opinion that my thoughts on this book are in the minority.