“A Prayer for Owen Meany”

by davidbjensen

Irving, John.  A Prayer for Owen Meany.  New York:  William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1989.

On my block, there’s this person who seems to have a serious aversion to throwing out “perfectly good stuff.”  I’ve seen worn-in leather shoes, halfway used up makeup kits, tattered children’s clothing, and among various other “still useful” items, books.  So a few months back I was walking past and in a box of unwanted books, a John Irving title caught my attention.  Having read “The World According to Garp” a couple of years ago, I figured I’d pick this one up–“A Prayer for Owen Meany”–and put it on my bookshelf to get around to one day.

Well, I got around to it, and how glad I am that I did!  In my humble opinion, this might just be the illustrious “Great American Novel.”  That’s how I felt while reading it, anyway.  In this novel, John Irving demonstrates an uncanny ability to draw the reader into the story, with a Dickensian capacity to weave character development, plot,  humor, and social commentary into a fun but serious coming-of-age tale.  He demonstrates, also, a mastery over non-linear storytelling.  That is, the bulk of the narrative is told through the voice of the author during his childhood/adolescence/early adulthood in 1950-60s rural New Hampshire, while part is being recounted in the author’s present-day adult voice as an expatriate, private school English teacher in Toronto.  The storyline is kept cohesive through the element of repetition, as he continually returns to meaningful themes, events, and people.  And like the characters themselves, the names alone are full of life:  Tabitha Wheelright, Buzzy Thurston, Reverend Dudley Wiggin, Archibald Thorndike…Paul Owen Meany, Jr.!

Given that literary structure, one of the most pertinent themes in the novel is armlessness.  There’s the armless Chief Watahantowet, the stuffed armadillo from which Owen Meany removes the claws, the dressmaker’s dummy that belonged to the narrator’s mother, the statue of Mary Magdalene, and the culminating occurrence at the very end of the story.  None of this makes sense without having read the book, I realize, but it is all significant to a central motif.  Strange theme, I know, but if I may read into it, these figurative representations are meant to convey allegory at its finest.  Now this is just my take on it, but perhaps the symbolism is meant to express the author’s stance on another central theme, i.e., American foreign diplomacy in general and the Vietnam War in particular.  Pacifism…taking up no arms…armlessness.  You’ll see what I mean if you read the book.

As for a sidenote,  it felt appropriate reading this book during the holidays.  Set amid its sentimental New England imagery, there is quite a description of one Thanksgiving, and an even lengthier description of one Christmas.  The author devotes a couple of chapters to the annual Christmas pageant, with a lot of description about Owen Meany’s role as the little Lord Jesus in the creche.  Again, centrally symbolic to theme, and again, you’ll see what I mean if you read the book.

Every twist and turn along the way, each foresight and reflection in the plot of this narration are remarkably well crafted.  It’s almost as if no detail is unimportant, which makes for a very full-bodied work of fiction.  It’s nostalgic and heartfelt and clever.  And while it’s steeped in erudite references to the humanities and Biblical allusions, the tone is established in language that is soothing and straightforward and accessible.  As a novelist, John Irving’s light shines brightly in “A Praryer for Owen Meany,” a genuine marvel of literary genius!  Unquestionably, this is one of, if not the, very best novels I’ve ever read!

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