BOOK REPORTS FOR ADULTS: A Prayer for Owen Meany
Renowned author Emilie Buchwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” In our series Book Reports for Adults, we hope to make up for all those parents who turned on Seinfeld instead.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that…
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Why You Should Read A Prayer for Owen Meany: This is a book about doing good in the world — what it means and what it costs — so 2016 seems like a timely year to read it.
Book Size: Huge. This is a John Irving novel after all, so of course it spans 20 years in the lives of 20 different characters. It’s going to take a while.
For such a long book, though, it is remarkably well-paced; with healthy doses of action, humor, and oh shit! passed out like candy whenever things start to look dull…
The Book Report, and What I Learned:
The Plot, Nearly Spoiler-Free:
Owen Meany will never get over killing his best friend’s mother.
To everyone else, even her son Johnny, it’s clear that Tabitha Wheelwright’s death was not Owen’s fault. She died in a freak accident at a Little League game — just one of those things, with no one really to blame. To 11-year-old Owen, though, Tabby Wheelwright’s death was proof of what his parents had been telling him for as long as he could remember –
– Owen was a magical child, and God had special plans for him.
Owen has always been special, of course. A dwarf with a speech defect, Owen has never walked into a room without instantly becoming the center of attention.
Born to an extremely religious family who believed he was conceived without sin, Owen grew up hearing stories about his great and terrible destiny, though he never believed them until God guided that baseball to his bat and made him His instrument in ending Tabby Wheelwright’s life.
Now, Owen is seeing fuzzy visions of his future everywhere.
He knows that he will join the army. He knows that he will go to Vietnam. He knows that he will save a group of children’s lives — and he knows that the day he saves them will be the day he dies.
Is Owen God’s instrument? Has his destiny been foretold? Will those children he’s been seeing in his dreams die if he doesn’t get to Vietnam in time to save them? Or, is Owen a young, impressionable, stubborn kid who is letting a childhood accident and a vivid imagination destroy his life?
Johnny Wheelwright doesn’t know the answer to that question, and, honestly, he doesn’t care.
Either Owen is risking his life for the sake of a delusion or he’s chasing a purpose that will kill him for sure, and Johnny will not let either of those things happen.
If destiny wants to take Johnny’s best friend, then it’s going to need to get through Johnny first…
Owen, the instrument. Descended from a long line of New England granite miners, Owen approaches life with a straightforward matter-of-factness you’d think would clash with religious faith yet somehow fits it perfectly instead. Never one to suffer fools gladly, Owen’s stubbornness and honesty make him a pain in the ass to authority figures of all kinds but a natural leader among his peers. Johnny, who’s our narrator, relates Owen’s dialogue in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, and it suits him. Owen has always been larger than life.
Johnny, the writer. The illegitimate scion of a fading New England family, Johnny Wheelwright at eleven is everything Owen isn’t: shy, indecisive, and totally confused about his place in the world. A halfhearted dater, a mediocre student, a son who doesn’t even know his father’s name, Johnny is lost and purposeless until Owen takes him under his wing. For this favor, Johnny becomes Owen’s most devoted protector, even when — especially when — he’s protecting Owen from himself.
The Themes and Ideas:
Faith and destiny. One of the strongest recurring images in A Prayer for Owen Meany is what the characters call Watahantowet’s totem: a figure with no hands, the symbol of the tribe that once ruled their New Hampshire town. Throughout the book, the totem is an image of helplessness. Quite a few of the characters in this book feel like they have no hands — like they’re being carried along by forces they can’t control and have no choice but to go along with what those forces want.
On the other hand (so to speak), you only need to spend ten minutes with Owen to realize what a bogus idea total helplessness in the face of fate is.
Owen, of all people, should feel like a helpless pawn — he’s predestined to die young, he knows when and where it will happen, and he’s already been given (as far as he’s concerned) proof of his extraordinary place in the cosmic scheme of things. His life and death are a done deal, signed, sealed, and delivered.
But despite all this, Owen remains one of the least helpless literary characters I have ever met.
He’s strong, focused, principled, and determined — full of purpose that comes not from something imposed on him but something he chose. Owen knows who he is and what he wants, and he fights quite hard for both as long as he’s alive.
In the end, if Owen dies, it won’t be because he was born to do it — it will be because he is precisely the kind of person who would sacrifice himself for others even if he didn’t have to. It’s only because Owen is who he is, wants what he wants, and chooses what he chooses that his destiny has a chance of coming true. People talk about self-fulfilling prophecies as if they’re always a bad thing, but A Prayer for Owen Meany shows how choosing to fulfill a self-fulfilling prophecy can sometimes be empowering — a precious chance to create meaning in an unfair world.
Authority and institutions. Even though it was written in the eighties, A Prayer for Owen Meany is wholeheartedly a book of the sixties. If Owen is a messiah, he’s a sixties messiah: a bright-eyed student who stands up to the forces of corruption in the Establishment with nothing but his ideals and his voice. In general, most of the authority figures in this book — school officials, religious leaders, even parents — are misguided at best and cruel at worst, and most of them wind up clashing with Owen in his quest to do good. Vietnam-era America is a tough time to be a prophet, but hey, you prophet for the decade you have, not the decade you want.
Owen’s search for an authority figure he can actually believe in parallels the boys’ search for Johnny’s unknown father, which continues off and on for most of their lives, stalling out for a year at a time only to revive when they come across some new clue.
Like most kids who need to search for years to find an absent parent, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Johnny is going to be disappointed with what he finds. Nevertheless, he won’t ever stop looking, hoping that just this once an authority figure won’t let him down after all…
In many ways, A Prayer for Owen Meany is about what it means to be worthy — of respect, of admiration, of power, of an important job that no one else can do. The more authority figures Owen and Johnny meet who do not deserve what they have, the more determined the two become to be better than the people who came before them.
A kid plays Jesus in a Christmas pageant and either takes it way too seriously or takes it just seriously enough.
Part to Quote So People Will Think You’ve Read It:
“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.”
Side Effects of Reading A Prayer for Owen Meany May Include:
CAPSLOCK shock, spontaneous armadillo plushies, and finally getting the point of The Scarlet Letter.
If you liked…
…John Irving’s gothic, sideways New England, try The Cider House Rules, which tells stories about the orphan and abortion trade in rural Maine in the 1930’s. Like A Prayer For Owen Meany, it’s good gateway John Irving — dark and disturbing, but still significantly less fucked up than The World According to Garp or The Hotel New Hampshire, which are not for the faint of heart.
…books about fate, destiny, and free will, try David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which tracks the same being through multiple lifetimes, from hundreds of years in our past to hundreds of years in our future. Like A Prayer for Owen Meany, it has a lot to say about the complicated interplay between choice and destiny. It’s a little heavier on the cannibalism, but a little lighter on the mutilation, so it probably evens out.
…melancholic sixties fiction, try any of Joyce Carol Oates’ early writing. She shares John Irving’s talent for mixing the profound with the deeply twisted. You can find a lot of her early stories in the collection Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?, including the title story, which is a classic.
(header image courtesy of this awesome post by John Clements)
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