Reason to Believe: A Prayer for Owen Meany




“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?


Stuff I’m reading


“If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!”  – John Waters


How many books do you read at one time?

I have been struggling to put together a post on something besides Proust.  Available time has been an issue, but reading material has not.   It seems that I don’t have  much  “portion control” when it comes to reading.  I’m a bit, um, impulsive.  I’ve started writing about different books, but haven’t finished before I’m on to the next thing.   So I thought I’d just share what I’ve dipped into lately.  Read any of them?  Let me know what you thought!  Reading something now you think I’d like?  Tell me!  Hated something I loved?  leave a comment!

A Visit from the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan

This was probably the best book I read last year.  I realize it isn’t new – maybe  you’ve  read it?    It’s linked short stories about friends and colleagues in the music business, with a different point of view in each story, and characters and time overlapping.  The writing is beautiful and Egan is an imaginative storyteller – one of the chapters is in Power Point.  I thought that would be really gimmicky, but it turned out to be the story that grabbed my heart and made me want to read the whole book over again.  Egan has said in interviews that In Search of Lost Time was an inspiration for Goon Squad. “Time’s a goon,” says one of her characters.  Yes.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

I impulsively splurged and bought this in hardcover when I couldn’t find it in the library or on Kobo.   The idea of a love story about a Lisa Simpson-y Eng. Lit. major appealed to me for some reason.  I liked it, although not quite as much as Middlesex.  I was really emotionally involved in the first part of the novel, with Madeleine’s love for the complicated Leonard, and Mitchell’s unrequited feelings for Madeleine, but, as much as I felt the depiction of Leonard’s struggle with bipolar disorder was harrowing and convincing, Eugenides lost me somehow towards the end.  Maddie seemed to give up everything for Leonard, but I couldn’t quite see what the “everything” was.  Still, Eugenides is one of those sympathetic novelists who will have me reading everything he writes

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver  

Since I’m taking a short fiction course, I thought I would read Raymond Carver, who comes up in everyone’s discussions of amazing short story writers.  I haven’t finished it though, because the story Tell the Women We’re Going was so disturbing I couldn’t pick the book up again.  It’s about a murder, and I felt like I’d witnessed it.  That’s  undeniably an accomplishment, but it didn’t make me want to get any closer.  Maybe later.

The Best American Short Stories 2010 edited by Richard Russo

Anthologies like this are a bit of a crapshoot, because you never know how many of the stories will be something you’ll like. I’ve read most of it; some stories left me cold, some I really enjoyed.  Most puzzling was The Cousins by Charles Baxter.  I’m not sure what it was about, so I’m going to read it again.  Other favourites in the book were by Lori Ostlund, Kevin Moffett, Wells Tower, Lauren Groff and Karen Russell, who also wrote Swamplandia!, which is in a stack of books by my bed waiting to be read.

Birds of America by Lorrie Moore  

This is a book of short stories.  I read a story by Lorrie Moore in my class called How to Become a Writer.  It was funny and original, and I picked up Birds of America at the library because I wanted to read more.  It’s not disappointing – she has a way with a phrase that makes you laugh out loud.  Her stories are about people on the fringes of self discovery, and the book’s hard to put down.  I’ll be looking for more by Lorrie Moore.

Important Artifacts and Personal Property From The Collection Of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry by Leanne Shapton

This book was on a list called 10 Wonderful Love Stories Told in Unusual Ways which I originally saw on flavorwire.  I found the book in the art section of the library, but it’s really a fabricated auction catalogue that tells the story of the relationship and eventual breakup of two people named Lenore and Hal, through personal photos, cards, mixtapes, clothes and books. It has the voyeuristic appeal of something like Found by Davy Rothbart or Postsecret by Frank Warren.  Except it’s totally made up.  It’s touching and wonderfully original, and I don’t want to give it back now.  Guess I’ll have to go shopping.

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

This is a reread.  I’m reading it as part of a Random Reader Challenge, in anticipation of reading John Irving’s new novel, In One Person, a copy of which is sitting on my sister’s windowsill right now.  Hope she reads it soon so I can borrow it.  The book has been getting mixed reviews, but that doesn’t make any difference to me – I’ll read it anyway, because his best books are among my favourite books ever.  There’s a nice review of it by Jeanette Winterson in the New York Times.  I’ve read The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules twice – Owen Meany is my other favourite John Irving, so I’m going to give it another spin.  I got a bit lost with some of his later books – any you think I should read?