I wish I could remember when A Prayer for Owen Meany first appeared on my book radar. It was years ago now, and I immediately got an old mass-market paperback copy and then forgot it on my shelves somewhere. But I kept hold of the idea that I should read it, and that it was considered a “good book” by those in the know – whoever they are.
Having read it for myself now, I’m not certain I would call it a “good book.” I would call it: a long book, a book of ideas, an American book, and an ambitious book. These four descriptions don’t mean that it couldn’t also be a good book, but I found myself repeatedly disappointed with A Prayer for Owen Meany, mainly in the writing but also in the depth of Irving’s ideas.
The novel is told by John Wheelright, an American bachelor living in Canada in the late 1980s, but the bulk of the story occurs between about 1952 and 1969 and is about his best friend growing up in New Hampshire, Owen Meany. It is about their childhood, about the death of John’s mother, their search for John’s real father, their prep school lives and the onset of the Vietnam War. It is both a comic novel and a real tragedy—a mixture I usually like—and it’s also an example of a very typical kind of American realism: the details of small town life, boyhood trials, American sexual culture, and religion (lots of religion).
I must say right off that Owen Meany himself is an incredible character. I can only imagine how much fun Irving must have had writing this young man. He is a freak—a tiny kid with a horrific voice, zappingly clever, courageous, eccentric, loyal and hungry for love, starving even. Narrator John is so bland in comparison, as I’m sure he’s meant to be. But he is too bland, finally. I couldn’t even really figure out who John was until pages 421 – 424 when suddenly, he comes thrillingly to life. That’s a long time to wait.
John isn’t ultimately the point of the novel. The point is Owen—what becomes of him, what he brings to John and other characters. It isn’t really giving anything away to quote what’s written on the back cover of my edition:
Owen Meany, the only child of a New Hampshire granite quarrier, believes he is God’s instrument. He is.
This religious aspect of the novel is, perhaps, its most interesting. I am not an ideal reader for a book with a deep religious focus because I don’t have a lot of patience where religion is concerned. (Marilynne Robinson’s exquisite Gilead would be the great exception to that statement.) Having said that, I believe that Irving handles the theme with great detail and a lot of care. The novel reveals Religion in all its destructive, powerful glory and explores the intricacies and limits of personal faith. Irving also focuses a sharp eye on the gray zone where religion and superstition share uncomfortable territory.
A quick word on the book’s political preoccupation. I’m curious whether the book was at all controversial when it came out in 1989. It is fiercely anti-Vietnam war, and fiercely anti-Reagan (the two narrative time periods). My only complaint with the politics in the book is the heavy-handed and clumsy way they are delivered. No, that isn’t quite fair. Because the heart of the novel takes place during the Vietnam war, the political critique in those chapters is quite meaningful and feels more or less natural, but the 1980s political analysis is clumsily delivered in series of boring monologues.
Ultimately, my frustration with A Prayer for Owen Meany is similar to the feeling I get when I find myself in discussion with someone who is very bright but who doesn’t know when to stop talking and who takes me, or anyone else listening, for an idiot. The book engages with some fascinating ideas, involves one of the most interesting fictional characters I’ve ever come across and centers on events—both fictional and historical—of great import. Unfortunately, a lot of that “goodness” gets drowned out by too much “unnecessary.” Irving has his characters explain, many times over, all of the book’s symbolism. He also repeats himself. And worst of all, the book overprepares the reader for the impending tragedy. I got so sick of Irving’s allusions to what was going to happen to Owen Meany that when it actually happened I was too numb to appreciate what should have been an extremely powerful scene.
Anyone else read Irving? Are any of his earlier novels worth trying out? Thoughts?