“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.”
Thus begins the six-hundred page-long novel by John Irving; A Prayer for Owen Meany can be, quite admiringly, summed up in its opening sentence. This skilful opening does not go to waste; Irving follows this with one of the most well-written story I have ever read. I have years ahead of me, of course, when I’m sure Capote or Fitzgerald or Hemingway will challenge Irving’s novel—though Owen Meany, with his wrecked voice and diminutive size, will withstand these battles. I was introduced first to A Prayer for Owen Meany through school (the book was a choice for this year’s summer reading)—but my mother was actually the one who gave me a glimpse of it’s greatness. She hadn’t read the book for over thirty years, she told me, but she swore it was one of the best books she had ever read. Curious to form my own opinion, and I bought a copy and began to read.
I read the summary on the back of my book first; it was then I became intrigued. The few-sentenced description tells the tale of a fated baseball and briefly hints that something miraculous occurs after it is hit.
A Prayer for Owen Meany is told in the point of view of John Wheelwright, a man living in Canada, who reflects upon his early childhood, teenage years, and adult life in Gravesend, New Hampshire. John takes more the role of an observer than of the main character, despite the novel being entirely about his life. He replaces what in a typical, first-person narrative would be his feelings and emotions with his observations of the people of Gravesend, particularly Owen Meany. (Not that the novel lacks his feelings and emotions entirely; it is quite the opposite during his entries from Canada—but you shall see that if you read them, of course!) Told in a variation of personal narrative (oftentimes drawn-out and what has been described as exhaustingly boring—much to my disagreement) and diary entries from his life in Canada, Johnny Wheelwright paints a story as vivid as the tomato red color of the pick-up truck that Owen drives when he’s older.
Owen Meany is no ordinary boy (to say the least). Perhaps you have a slight idea of the size of his body and the sound of his voice based on the information given in the first line of the book, but not until a few pages in is one introduced to Owen the way John Irving intended.
OWEN MEANY SPEAKS IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. HE EVEN WRITES IN CAPITALS.
His unforgettable entrance into the novel—being thrown around by his fellow Sunday school classmates—includes this sentence:
“PUT ME DOWN! YOU ASSHOLES!”
This is perhaps one of the greatest lines in A Prayer for Owen Meany; I will never fail to appreciate it.
My thoughts on this novel have been voiced to my friends reading it for school too perhaps too many times, but all who have or are reading it agree with me: this book is one of the best they’ve ever read. Despite being heavily religious, and being very disinterested in the subject myself, I loved the imagery/symbolism Irving used in A Prayer for Owen Meany to contrast the faithful and the doubtful. The dichotomy between faith and doubt is seen in Johnny (doubt) and Owen (faith) and the subjects are major themes of the novel, particularly when Johnny reflects upon the truth in Owen’s claim that he is God’s instrument, as well as several other claims that I will not mention—no spoilers!!
However, if I had to choose my favorite part of A Prayer for Owen Meany, it would not be the symbolism or other nerdy quirks readers love; my favorite part of this novel is John Irving.
What a man John Irving is. My admiration came from my own love for lengthy descriptions and seemingly endless paragraphs about nothing. I used these so often in my own short stories that his writing felt familiar. (My creative writing teacher despised this and assigned my class limits of six hundred words per story, a practice also know as the bane of my junior year.) This little aspect we shared made me love him even more. And the writing—oh, the writing!—is impeccable. His style is laudable, his tone is refreshing and entirely in character. One thing Irving did in particular that I enjoyed was that he made his secondary and even tertiary characters people. In other books I have read, characters besides the main ones are given little thought, but the citizens of Gravesend and Toronto are so thought out and so sharply described that they feel like real people, not figures created to catalyze the plot. It is because of this prolonged description that, I have heard, people dislike Irving’s style. Perhaps it is just the reader in me, perhaps it is the similar writing style that we share that allowed me to not mind this. Perhaps, but I think it is the thorough and complete feeling that one is left with at the novel’s close that makes up for the lengthy descriptions and seemingly endless paragraphs about nothing. A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of those novels with that “ohh” moment during the final chapter; the one sentence where everything comes together, the one paragraph that gives everything that didn’t make sense or things that were seemingly about nothing have a point. I can guarantee you there will be an “ohh” moment; there was one for me, and there will be one for you.
Much of A Prayer for Owen Meany takes place during the Vietnam War. Johnny criticizes the Reagan administration via his diary entries from Canada, giving us an idea of his liberal political stance (perhaps too liberal by Canada’s standards, which you shall see given if you read the novel). While reading the novel, I thought about what he would be saying about this year’s politics. I imagined him nearly exploding in a diary entry talking about Donald Trump. Or police brutality. Or terrorism. Or suicide bombings. What would Johnny Wheelwright have to say about that in his diary? Johnny always remained passive, unlike Owen, who takes a great stance against things he doesn’t believe in. (This gave Owen’s peers at Gravesend Academy reason to call him “The Voice”.) Owen spoke out, in his wrecked voice, more than many of us ever will in our lives.
Margins was one of the amazing things that happened to me in 2015/2016. But the joy of joining a small community of writers for an online magazine could not wash away the horrible things happening around the world. I mentally counted how many days had passed between notifications of the violence that had happened that day; I don’t recall for sure, though I remember the majority being one or two. The salience of inflicting change right now is too monumental to be summed up in an article. The youth of 2016 have great power and we must use it. Thus how a book review ties into milestones; we all have our individual miracles and independent successes, but what matters is what we do with these for change. Let us be The Voice in ourselves. Let us make a change.