Friday, October 21, 2011

A Prayer For Owen Meany / by John Irving

New England is one of those places where good writers seem to flourish. Not that there aren't other places in the country where literary prowess is concentrated, but the region's seemingly always had an endless supply of talented bards. John Irving is one of them. An Exeter, New Hampshire native where his stepfather and uncle were on the faculty of the local high-profile prep school, Irving grew up never knowing his biological father, an Army Air Corpsmen killed in WWII. After attending Exeter, he went on to the University of Pittsburgh with the hopes of continuing a successful amateur wrestling career but ultimately matriculated back home and the local state university. In the mid-sixties he attended several prestigious writers workshops including the noteworthy University of Iowa gig as well as one in Vienna, a location he would later tab for his first novel. By the 1970's he was writing moderately successful novels and teaching English at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. In 1978, The World According to Garp became a bestseller and an international sensation, initiating a decade of success for the writer whose 1980's novels (and one short story) were all either bestsellers or award winners--1985's The Cider House Rules would later net Irving an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. A Prayer For Owen Meany is likely the author's most autobiographical work and though not as wildly popular as 'Garp'--its subject matter is much tamer and more solemn by comparison--is still one of the most widely read books around.

By any standard, Owen Meany is small. It's not just his diminutive stature which distinguishes him from all his peers, or even his fawn-like build and bone structure which projects a alarmingly vulnerable quality. It's his voice. Always a bit of a high pitched squeal several octaves above normal, it's never changed with age, a damaged larynx responsible for the son of a New Hampshire granite mason's conspicuously awkward speech. His size or lack thereof and his quirky, atonal articulations aren't really what sets Owen apart though. It's something else altogether, something especially remarkable. For John Wheelwright, it's not really something about his best friend as something which is him, a fated and fatalistic phenomenon which underlies a particularly critical truth in both their lives. Owen possesses a prescient, almost clairvoyant insight into the future. But it's not so much a psychic power or mystical foreknowledge of things to come as it is an unmistakeable ability to gauge the nature of reality, to foresee a culmination of events based off calculations and intuitions made from an especially brilliant mind. And yet Owen's neither a cold intellectual nor a cynical forecaster of doom. There's a spiritual side to the boy, a very serious spiritual side.

A particularly odd and tragic accident has inadvertently illuminated this fact: the death of John's cherished mother from a foul ball which Owen hit--the only connection the boy ever made with a baseball--during their last little league game. The death is very sad of course. But instead of driving the boys apart, the tragedy actually brings the 12-year-olds closer. After all, Owen loved John's mother as much as John did. The event marks an almost cathartic transformation in Owen who senses a hidden destiny behind the oddly peculiar incident. As the two transition from childhood to adulthood amid a world going from bad to worse in the 1960's, what's already becoming clear to Owen is slowly revealed in tragic and devastating fashion before John's eyes. Although by the time it manifests in full, it just may be too late for John to salvage the life and legacy of his best friend.

Not everyone likes John Irving. Need it be said that he doesn't care for a few of his peers either. His plots are rather atypical and complex, many of them more than a little 'all over the place' with characters demonstrating a propensity towards odd choices and peculiar behaviors. More than a few critics have called his novels Dickensian marking the author's twisting narrative style, quizzical personalities and multiple settings. He writes well though, with a style that's very engaging and accessible to readers. 'Owen Meany' isn't quite as outlandish a plot as 'Garp' or Hotel New Hampshire in which some truly oddball characters cross paths in small town America and Central Europe. John Wheelwright and Owen Meany are relative down to earth types, John a somewhat lazy New Englander descended from founding fathers and Owen an unusually intelligent, especially dynamic product of the working class. That the story is especially grounded in spiritual principles, fervent Protestantism at that, is rather uncharacteristic of Irving. This is after all the same guy who wrote the characters of 'Roberta' Muldoon, the transsexual ex-football star, and radical feminist Jenny Fields into the same story ('Garp'). 'Owen Meany' has nothing so eccentric which may be why it's one of the author's most universally accessible novels. At the same time it's hard to see the story working as well in another's hands. Written by someone else, Owen might come off as something of nerdy outcast or a fledgling sidekick. He's neither of these, really not anywhere close though to call him a hero in a realistic sense wouldn't be too far off. No, the character of Owen is likely one of Irving's greatest achievements, a "small wonder" who's very much the classic visionary as well as an imperturbable charismatic, a cherished friend and magnanimous martyr and, penultimately, every bit a human being. Because of him, the book is a truly captivating work. (FIC IRVING)

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