A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving. Pub 1989
Despite this being one of my favourite books of all time (it would be on my Desert Island Books list), I realized when I started this one a few months ago that I’d only ever read it the once, back in 1989 when it first came out.
I was by then a very big John Irving fan, having read everything he’d written to that point. Little did I know in 1989 that he had reached his peak – it was all downhill from there, and his most recent novels have been dreck (I haven’t finished either of his latest; although I did try very hard, I couldn’t get beyond the first few chapters). That may be why I avoided returning to this one – I didn’t want to discover that my youthful adoration had been misplaced.
However, a local theatre company was presenting Owen Meany as a play this summer, and I determined to see it and to re-read the novel. Neither was a disappointment. While the play couldn’t possibly capture the scope of the story, it did an excellent job of presenting the full arc in an entertaining way. The novel was as captivating as ever.
There were many story elements that I’d forgotten, so it was a bit like a new reading experience. I had forgotten some of the funniest bits (the part with the psychiatrist’s car was especially hilarious) and some of the everyday comedy and tragedy that make up much of the story. Irving is at his detail-oriented best here, highlighting that one man’s normal is another’s absurd. A true summary of the book might be:
The story of a man’s life, from youth through to middle age. John grows up in a small New England town, attends local schools, eventually getting his Masters in English and becoming a teacher a school in Toronto. His mother is accidentally killed when he is in his early teens, and he grows up living with his grandmother and stepfather. His closest friend, Owen, is a peculiar character, with physical and personality quirks that add colourful and comic elements to many of John’s early life experiences. After helping John to avoid being drafted, Owen is killed saving a group of civilians from an act of domestic terrorism. Themes of faith and doubt are explored throughout the story. A Bildungsroman.
But that would miss the point. Irving finds the extraordinary in the mundane, turning a typical small town into a mystical realm and creating magical totems out of personal objects (a favourite theme of mine), engaging the reader from start to end. The story includes a few of his familiar tropes – New England town, boy’s private school, a mother with a strikingly independent character – but dispenses with several others (there are no bears or wrestlers, no one becomes a writer, and no one goes to Vienna).
Coming in at a hefty 542 pages in hard-cover first edition, completing this read was a significant accomplishment for slow-old-me, even if the story was familiar. But I enjoyed every page.