“Never confuse faith, or belief – of any kind – with something even remotely intellectual.” – John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
“If you want to see the consequences of ideas, write a story. If you want to see the consequences of belief, write a story in which somebody is acting on the ideas or beliefs that she has. ” – Charles Baxter
Growing up in our house everyone read, and quite often parents and teenage kids read the same books around the same time. The authors I most remember the whole family reading were Robert Heinlein, Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving.
Last year I read The World According to Garp for a second time. I originally read it in my teens while it was still on the bestseller list (stop doing the math). I loved it just as much on rereading as the first time around – probably more. I’ve also read The Cider House Rules twice. When the John Irving Random Reader Challenge came up, the book I wanted to read again was A Prayer for Owen Meany.
My strongest memory of reading Owen Meany was of racing to finish the book before I had to go to work and crying at the end. It’s great rereading a book when you have no memory for plot details – you are in thrall to the storyteller as much as the first time around.
The narrator, John Wheelwright, tells the story of Owen Meany, who “is the reason I believe in God.” Owen Meany is an unforgettable figure, small in size but larger than life, with a voice described as a “permanent scream” and a commanding presence. The story is set in motion when Owen hits a foul ball at a baseball game which kills John’s mother. From that moment Owen believes he is “an instrument of God”, and by the end of the book, John believes it too.
Owen’s belief is reinforced by an early vision of the date of his death, and the premonition in a dream of how he dies. With this knowledge he orchestrates events in his life to ensure the fulfillment of his destiny, enlisting in the army so that he can go to Vietnam where he believes he is fated to die in the act of saving children. On our way to his fate, we are immersed in the life of a small New Hampshire town in the fifties and sixties. It’s a world of loggers and quarrymen, students and schoolmasters, Christmas pageants, amateur theatricals, vindictive mailmen, repressed adolescents, family secrets and the influence of the church, JFK, and Vietnam. It’s all depicted through the lens of the narrator looking back twenty years later as he reads about the Iran-Contra scandal and contemplates the roots of American hypocrisy.
What I love about Irving’s best books are the things I loved here: the author’s compassion and humour, his ability to tell a story expertly, the blending of naturalistic detail with outrageous characters and plot. The scenes of the Christmas pageant and production of A Christmas Carol managed to be both crazily improbable (a child angel left swinging above the stage, Owen foreseeing his own death on a tombstone) and completely realistic (the egos of small town amateur actors and directors). The imagery and symbols – an armless statue, a dressmaker’s dummy in a red dress, a fatal baseball – are concrete and otherworldly, beautiful and emotionally resonant.
What didn’t hold up for me as strongly was an attachment to Owen – he seemed more a Character with a capital “C” than a character. His preternatural wisdom and oddball physical appearance, along with the narrator’s never wavering devotion distanced me. And what to make of the narrator himself? Apart from an emotionally satisfying scene where he stages a small miracle with the dressmaker’s dummy and the baseball for Pastor Merrill, he remains a “Joseph” despite his faith in Owen – ineffectual, a witness only. Your thoughts?
There were so many beautiful details that grounded me in the story, though, and I love the questions Irving asks in his book. Where do we find belief? And once found, what do we do with it? What shape do we give our lives through our interaction with the world?