A Prayer for Owen Meany ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
John Irving’s 1989 novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, is a story about friendship, faith and destiny. It takes place from the early 1950s through the late 1960s and into the turbulent Vietnam War years. The story is told in the first-person voice of John Wheelwright, best friend of Owen Meany. John and Owen live in the small town of Gravesend, New Hampshire. They both have things that set them apart. John was “born out of wedlock” and doesn’t know who his father is. (John and Owen spend many years trying to figure it out.) John lives with his pretty mother and snooty grandmother in a large, imposing house; his grandmother has plenty of money. Owen is very small and, when he grows to adulthood, will only be about five feet tall and weigh one hundred pounds. His voice is described as an arresting “falsetto” that doesn’t change and deepen as he gets older, as other boys’ voices “change.”
Owen doesn’t have the advantages that John Wheelwright has. He lives with his ignorant parents near a granite quarry, where there is always dust in the air. His father is in the granite and gravestone business. Owen is an only child. His mother, who might be retarded, sits and stares and doesn’t say much. The Wheelwright family practically adopts Owen; he almost spends more time in their home than he does in his own. When Owen and John are about ten years old, Owen is the unwitting cause of John’s mother’s death.
Despite his limitations, Owen is smart and funny and people love him. He feels terrible about what happens to John’s mother, but John doesn’t blame him. “It was an accident,” John says. John’s grandmother, who doesn’t like many people, likes Owen. She comes to be his benefactor in many ways. Another major character is Dan Needham, John’s stepfather and a widower now that John’s mother is dead. The Reverend Lewis Merrill, the stuttering minister, also figures prominently in the story.
The most important thing about Owen Meany is that he has an unshakeable faith in God. He seems himself as God’s instrument. He has a destiny to fulfill, he believes, and he will fulfill it, despite any obstacles placed in his way. John, who is at first an unbeliever, comes to believe in God because of his association with Owen. Owen’s odd father tells John toward the end of the book that they believe Owen was a “virgin birth.” Owen is different in so many ways and touches many lives. You have to read the book to know what a miraculous character Owen is.
A Prayer for Owen Meany is long (617 pages), too long at times, especially toward the end. The liberal 1980s politics that the narrator interjects seem out of date and unnecessary. (I cringe at the mention of the “Iran-Contra” affair of the 1980s. That doesn’t belong in this story. The politics of the Vietnam War era are at least relevant to the story.) Another quibble I had while reading the novel was the crude character Hester, John’s cousin to whom he is sexually drawn and Owen’s “girlfriend.” I for one could have done without her. The “cringe factor” of A Prayer for Owen Meany is small, though, and doesn’t ruin a generally compelling story. It’s fast, light reading that doesn’t require a lot of deep concentration.
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp