Synopsis: "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."
In the summer of 1953, two eleven-year-old boys—best friends—are playing in a Little League baseball game in Gravesend, New Hampshire. One of the boys hits a foul ball that kills the other boy's mother. The boy who hits the ball doesn't believe in accidents; Owen Meany believes he is God's instrument. What happens to Owen, after that 1953 foul ball, is extraordinary.
It is not an incredibly common occurrence for me to read a novel that moves me so deeply as. A Prayer for Owen Meany did. I come across books of this caliber maybe once or twice a year, if I'm lucky. It is incredibly rare to find books that are so well-written, so incredibly paced . . . and all the while simultaneously stir my heart and cause me to question so much of what I assume to be true. A Prayer for Owen Meany most certainly does this.
John Irving is an author I had never read before, but I had always heard great things about his work. I knew before going into this book that his books are rather 'literary' and populated with numerous memorable characters -- a modern day equivalent to Dickens, if you will. I was shopping in 2nd and Charles with some extra cash in my pocket, and decided to take a chance on the author I'd heard so many great things about. I bought A Prayer for Owen Meany and three other Irving titles (which I will be reading ASAP), and decided to start with the book currently being reviewed because it was the only one I had heard of. Am I glad I did!
A Prayer for Owen Meany is often considered Irving's magnum opus, and while I do not have knowledge of his other works, and therefore cannot compare this one to those, I would say I certainly agree with that sentiment. Owen Meany just 'feels' epic, grandiose -- Irving is grappling with big themes in a big way, and he doesn't short-change the reader one bit. This novel deals, in large part, with religion (Christianity to be specific). It is the running thread throughout the course of the story -- the cause for celebration and weeping alike. Owen Meany, the titular character, is God's instrument -- and he knows it. He is a strange guy, but I loved him in all of his eccentricities. This is a coming of age tale narrated in the first person, so it's through the narrator's -- Johnny Wheelwright -- eyes that we see Owen as the two boys grow up over the course of the sixteen years during which this story takes place. The narrator himself is an incredibly interesting character, but he's not as immediately in-your-face as Owen. The author shows off his incredible writing chops here by revealing only bits of Johnny at a time, and it's only in the final passage does he become fully revealed to the reader. Great stuff, John Irving. Marvelous stuff.
As I said before, this is a novel that grapples with large -- and difficult -- ideas. The boys' grow up in the '50s and '60s, experiencing the horrors of Vietnam in their early 20s. I've never read a novel that so amply and smartly deals with the difficulties and uncertainty of that era. It becomes not a long ago war fought by strangers on distant shores, but instead a national tragedy which never ends -- a tragedy that came knocking on the door of every American home. This novel really began to cut into me when JFK got elected (oh, Owen's adoration of the man -- that idealism! -- so mirrors my own political idealism that it almost hurt to read) and only became more personal, to me, from then on. It brought about a wellspring of emotion and ideas -- something no novel has done for me in quite some time.
This is a phenomenal read. I am currently kicking myself for not getting into John Irving sooner, but I'm here now. I have three other Irving novels on my shelf, and I will get to them shortly. Color me a fan. If you're a fan of Christian fiction, check this out. If you like coming of age novels set in the '50s and '60s, what are you waiting for? Hell, if you're a fan of modern fiction in any capacity, give this a go. The story is sublime, the writing is an editor's dream -- Irving's got the goods. I hated to leave the carefully wrought world of this story, but I had to. A Prayer for Owen Meany is a book I will revisit often in the years to come.