John Irving’s seventh novel is dominated by an extraordinary and preposterous hero. A tiny boy from the massive granite quarries of Gravesend, N.H. A prophet with a wrecked voice. A hero who speaks in a perpetual scream of UNIFORM UPPER-CASE LETTERS. Owen Meany.
Owen may be small, but his faith is huge. And from the fateful day in his eleventh spring when he hits the foul ball that kills his best friend’s mother, Owen Meany knows. He is here for a purpose. “GOD HAS TAKEN YOUR MOTHER,” he tells his bereaved friend, Johnny Wheelwright. “MY HANDS WERE THE INSTRUMENT. GOD HAS TAKEN MY HANDS. I AM GOD’S INSTRUMENT.”
Is it any wonder, then that it is Owen Meany who controls the pace and plot of this astonishing novel? It is John Wheelwright who, from the perspective of his self-imposed exile as an English teacher in present-day Canada, narrates the story of the boys’ adolescence in a small New England prep school town in the ’50s and ’60s. It’s Wheelwright who brings us through a time overshadowed by the moral exhaustion of America and the descending madness of Vietnam. but only a hero as attractive and powerful as Owen Meany, only someone with the strength of “a descending angel—a tiny but fiery god, sent to adjudicate the errors of our ways” could hold together the vastly divergent elements of this story: the armadillo, virgin birth, oversexed cousins, unnamed fathers, granite quarries, missing digits, Marilyn Monroe, angels, Christmas pageants, Canadian literature, armless Indian totems, a dressmaker’s dummy, Liberace, lust, Catholics, television, Episcopalians, baseball, Congregationalists, a Labrador retriever, Tess of the D’Urbervilles . . . and that’s just a little of it.
By now fans of Irving’s previous best sellers — The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules—have come to look forward to his charming though quasi-freakish characters, his truly outstanding wit, and his rich plots illuminated with lightning flashes from vengeful gods. they will not be disappointed by A Prayer for Owen Meany.
For those less devoted, it may require some perseverance to follow the book through to its end. Irving’s story line is far from linear, leaping back and forth between the decades at the flick of a page, folding back on itself constantly in layers of foreshadowing and further explanation. Those who falter should remember Wheelwright’s complaint about his lazy teenage pupils: “They want dialogue, they want action, but there’s so much writing in the description.” Like Owen Meany and his voice, almost every word of Irving’s novel is there for a purpose.
Never underestimate John Irving. The man is a major force in modern American letters. And A Prayer for Owen Meany is rewarding reading, a masterfully constructed story of fate and faith.
Taylor McKillop is a reader who lives in Massachusetts.