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A Prayer for Owen Meany ()

Mr. Doggett's Suggested Summer Reading for Students

Here is the opening sentence of the novel:

    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.

Now I have to admit to not keeping up with John Irving's career, the last thing I read was Garp, but it seems to me that this is where I left him twenty years ago.  All of the faux Christian elements are back--virgin births, saintly mothers, neutered heroes, etc.  The narrative voice is similar; the narrator is the weakest character.  The politics is still lightly leftish.  And so on...  Irving set out to be his generation's Dickens, but would appear to be turning into it's Vonnegut, endlessly rewriting the same novel under the mistaken impression that he is conveying profound truths, when in fact he is offering up mild amusements.

The specific focus of this book is the type of religious manifestation or miracle that would be necessary to make someone believe in God.  Irving quotes Frederick Buechner:

    Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a
    genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the
    process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were
    no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.

The narrator of the story, Johnny Wheelwright, finds his revelatory experience in the life & martyrdom of his boyhood friend Owen Meany, a dwarf who speaks in a high pitched but stentorian voice, which Irving renders, to the reader's profound annoyance, in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS.  He has several visions and dreams which convince him that he is predestined to save a flock of Vietnamese children.  The book wends along for some 500 pages to this inevitable conclusion, with myriad stops for Irving's confused political ravings and introduction of bizarre but pointless supporting characters.  It is a mark of the author's ability to please his audience and the inherent drama in the fate of Meany that we are swept along, reasonably willingly, to this conclusion.  It is the essence of his weakness that we finish the book thinking, not about what it all meant, but that, thanks to a few well-handled set pieces, it would make a decent slapstick comedy for the movies.

For when we step back from the tale for just a moment, we quickly see that the whole thing is a triumph of form over substance.  Irving is fascinated by the trappings and structures of Christianity (it occured to me, as I skipped to Owen's speeches, that putting his words in block letters recalled the Red Letter Bibles, which put Christ's words in red), but he apparently has no interest in the import of Christian beliefs, nor any understanding of faith.  The Gospels are vibrant documents today, not because of the arc of the story they tell, but because of the message of brotherly love and human redemption that Christ brought with him.  Irving preaches little more than that the Vietnam War was, and America is, a mess.  It's not exactly analogous to The Sermon on the Mount.

As to his obsession with miracles, the whole thing strikes me as utterly obtuse.  The future that Meany foresaw for himself came to pass, so Wheelwright believes in God?  Bill Clinton knew he'd be President one day, has his convinced anyone of the existence of a divine being?  When Frederick Buechner wrote the passage that is quoted above, could he not see that his existence and his ability to convey his thoughts are a miracle entire?   He and Irving really seem to be looking for magic tricks, not for miracles, because the miracle is all around them.

Meanwhile, Owen Meany continually acts in the book so as to conform with his visions.  He seems to have abdicated that which makes us human, free will.  If Irving's understanding of Christianity is really this meager, it's hard to see how he could ever have much of value to convey to us.

What we end up with here is a reasonably amusing book, which is only a simulacrum of a story of religious belief.  If you do not approach it expecting anything more than a pleasant diversion, you'll not be disappointed.  If you expect to be enlightened, look elsewhere.

ZACHARY BARNETT: Review of A Prayer for Owen Meany

When I was a kid, my friend Wayney and I used to play a game with army men and firecrackers.  Weíd each build elaborate forts in his sandbox, then set up our army guys accordingly.  Once finished, we would give each other 20-or-so firecrackers that we would then plant among each otherís forts.  The objective, obviously, was to destroy before being destroyed,  and one round of this little game could take up a whole morning; two kids with lighters choreographing each otherís annihilation.

I have just finished John Irvingís A Prayer for Owen Meany, and I am once again "up" on the Irving mind.  In 1979, The World According to Garp made me an Irving believer.  Garp was different and fun that way.  In the euphoria, I  read 158 Pound Marriage, The Water Method Man and Setting Free the Bears, the last of which was worth my while.  I stuck true through The Hotel New Hampshire and Cider House Rules.  I even picked up Owen Meany 10 years ago, but just couldnít do it.   And the reason is this:  Irving is the ultimate sandbox choreographer.  Heís the gimmick man, the guy who comes up with some great gags & wonderful scenes for the silver screen & then builds a story around them.

In Owen Meany, Irving tells us loud and clear; in the voice of little Owen, GOD HAS A PLAN FOR US.   Pre-destiny.  A wonderful idea.  Some savvy movie people took the loveable young Owen Meany character and produced the movie Simon Birch, which I adored.  However, Irving dragged us beyond Owenís childhood into the Vietnam War just so he could share his thoughts on the war and Owen could eventually save the lives of the Vietnamese children he was meant to save.  And, oh yeah, thereís a dog that gets runover by a diaper truck.  And something terrible happens when Owen hits a baseball.    Thereís also some nutty pranks involving a stuffed armadillo.  And guess what Owen does when he gets kicked out of prep school?

Sandbox choreography.   I strongly recommend the movie," Simon Birch".   There is a wonderful message and it is played true and it will leave you wanting to watch it again.   Irving should have been so savvy.



Grade: (C)


Book-related and General Links:
    -FRONT STREET: A Site Dedicated to John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany
    -The Idaho (A John Irving Page)
    -A Very Unofficial John Irving Page
    -REVIEW: (Robert Towers NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: (Alfred Kazin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: (Caryn James, NY Times)
    -Personal Best (Cintra Wilson, Salon)
    -Thoughts on John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany (Barbara J. Troyer-Turvey)


I've read a lot of the reviews on this webpage; and, I've got to admit that I agreed with you for the most part. That being said, A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY has got to be one of the greatest novels written in the last 50 years. Iriving's THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP promoted his status as an author to be watched. With the Owen Meany novel, I believe, he has proven to be a re-incarnate of Charles Dickens. In other words, simple but unique plot, with loads of characters that you love!!!

- David Atkinson

- Aug-06-2004, 16:37