Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Humor, Friendship and Devotion

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is the book that made me want to be a writer. I read it in high school after my favorite English teacher wrote down the title on a Post-It note and said, "You need to read this." I immediately went and found a copy and had it finished it by the end of the week. 

There is no way I can write a review that is worthy of this novel, but I shall try. It is the story of two boys in New Hampshire in the 1950s: the narrator is Johnny Wheelwright, whose family is wealthy; and his friend, Owen Meany. How to describe Owen? He was small and light, and he had a loud, high-pitched voice. He was smart and a loyal friend. Owen's parents were a bit odd, and his family was poor enough that the Wheelwrights often helped Owen with tuition and clothing.

The first chapter brings a tragedy: Johnny and Owen are playing baseball. Owen, who doesn't usually get to bat because he was so small, was told by the coach to go ahead and swing. Owen hits a foul ball that strikes Johnny's mother and kills her. Johnny is devastated and has trouble forgiving Owen, but they eventually make peace, thanks to a stuffed armadillo toy. (Thus explaining the armadillo pictured on some editions.)

The rest of the chapters cover the boys as they grow up and go to prep school. Owen has a gift for writing and pens some inflammatory columns in the school newspaper. There is also a hilarious prank that Owen pulls on a teacher he doesn't like, which involves a car, some athletes and a stage.

One of my favorite sections of the book describes a church Christmas pageant that goes horribly awry. Owen, who can be a bit bossy, takes over the pageant and assigns himself the role of Baby Jesus, even though in previous years it was just a doll. It's a laugh-out-loud disaster, and almost every year at Christmastime I'll pull out this book and reread the chapter.

When the boys turn 18, the Vietnam War is escalating and Owen signs up for the Reserve Officers Training Corps, which will pay for his college tuition while he serves. Owen even comes up with a plan to spare Johnny from having to go to Vietnam. Owen always has a plan, you see.

The plot slowly builds and builds, and I would describe it as a crescendo. There is a purpose to everything in the story, and by the end of the book, we understand why things had to be exactly what they were.

If you are a first-time reader of this novel, I need to warn you that there is a difficult passage at the beginning. Johnny, who is now an adult and has left the United States and moved to Canada, discusses his feelings about religion. I think this is the point where some readers get frustrated and abandon the book, but I urge you, I implore you, I beg you -- do not give up. There is a reason for it. If you can power through the discussion of churches, you will break through to a wonderful story.

Speaking of religion, I would be remiss not to mention the comparison to Jesus that Irving made. Whenever Owen speaks, his dialogue is in ALL CAPS. Bible readers will note that Jesus' words were printed in an all-red font in many editions. There are other similarities to Christ, but the less said on this, the better.

I have reread this book many times since I first read it in 1990, and each time, it moves me again. Some novels are easy to explain -- this one is not. It's a marvelous mix of comedy and drama and bildungsroman and the meaning of our lives, and I am grateful to have it in my life. I am not a religious person, but I became so attached to the character of Owen that thinking about him can make me a bit misty-eyed. He is complex and fleshed out in a way that few fictional characters are. 

Note: This book meant so much to me that I was horrified to hear that Hollywood made it into a movie. There is no way this book could be captured on film. Luckily someone had the good sense to change the title -- probably a demand of Mr. Irving -- but I have no intention of ever seeing it. I have a hobby of comparing movies adaptations with the source material, but this book is the exception. I want to remember it in its pure form. Owen would want it that way.

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