#28 A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving
A Prayer for Owen Meany was the seventh published novel by American writer John Irving. Published in 1989, it tells the story of John Wheelwright and his best friend Owen Meany growing up together in a small New England town during the 1950-60s. Owen is a remarkable boy in many ways; he believes himself to be God’s instrument, doesn’t believe in accidents, and journeys on a truly extraordinary path. It is regarded as a symbolic and often comic study of religious doubt and faith.
Writing from his home in Toronto, Canada in 1987, John Wheelwright narrates the story of his childhood. Owen Meany also featured Irving’s dark reflections on American history from the 1960s to the late 1980s. I confess that this is a time period that I am politically ignorant, or do not know as much as I should know. Peppering his narrative with frequent diary entries in which he chronicles his outrage against the behavior of the Ronald Reagan administration in the late 1980s, Wheelright tells the story of his early life in Gravesend, New Hampshire, when his best friend was Owen Meany, who he remembers as the boy who accidentally killed Wheelwright’s mother and made Wheelright believe in God. The narrative of A Prayer for Owen Meany does not follow a perfect chronology, as John pieces together the story he wants to tell.
Though most of its events are fictional, the broad contour of Owen Meany‘s storyline conforms to the contour of Irving’s life; it is probably his most autobiographical novel. The town in which the novel is set–Gravesend, New Hampshire–is modeled explicitly on Irving’s childhood town of Exeter, and Gravesend Academy is simply a literary version of Phillips Exeter Academy. Like Irving, John Wheelwright grows up on Front Street, is the stepson of an academy history teacher, and does not know who his real father is. Like Irving, Wheelright is dyslexic, and attends the academy and the University of New Hampshire; like Irving, Wheelright becomes a teacher, and teaches at an all-girls school (Irving taught at Mount Holyoke College). At the time of the novel’s narration, John lives in Toronto, where Irving now spends part of each year. Still, Owen Meany is hardly autobiography; though it features Irving’s reflections on small-town life and on the events of American history during his lifetime, its central character, the miraculous Owen Meany, is entirely a product of Irving’s imagination.
Irving became a teacher himself, working at Mount Holyoke College, but he continued to write, and began to publish novels in the late 1960s. Irving has always aspired to be a storyteller in the Dickensian sense, and his novels–frequently long, sprawling narratives featuring fantastical plots and memorable characters–are written for the intelligent general reader. I find that I am encouraged to take my time with his works.
The novel is also homage to The Tin Drum, one of the most famous works of the acclaimed German novelist Günther Grass. Grass was a great influence for John Irving, as well as a close friend. After briefly attending the University of Pittsburgh, he studied at the Institute for European Studies in Vienna under the tutelage of Grass. He eventually returned to the US and graduated from the University of New Hampshire, following which Irving studied at the highly prestigious Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he was mentored by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s interesting to note that the main characters of both novels, Owen Meany and Oskar Matzerath, share the same initials as well as some other characteristics, and the stories show some parallels too. Irving confirmed this explicitly in interviews and articles. “A Prayer for Owen Meany“, however, is a completely independent story and in no sense a copy of The Tin Drum.
Irving’s work lies somewhere between literary and popular fiction; in that sense, he has not been widely accepted as an artistically important American writer, but his work is critically acclaimed and beloved by millions of people. His fourth novel, 1978’s The World According to Garp, became a popular sensation–as well as a movie starring Robin Williams–and since then his novels have consistently become bestsellers. In addition to Garp, Irving has written Setting Free the Bears (1968), The Water-Method Man (1972), The 158-Pound Marriage (1974), The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), The Cider House Rules, A Son of the Circus (1994), A Widow for One Year (1998), and the work widely considered to be his finest, 1989’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. In addition to his career as a novelist, Irving has also written screenplay adaptations of several of his works. In 1999, he won an Academy Award for The Cider House Rules, which was made into a film starring Michael Caine. Irving’s newest work, a novel entitled The Fourth Hand, was published in the summer of 2001, A Widow for One Year was published in 2004, and Until I Find You was released in 2005.
I ran across two interesting side notes about Irving as I was researching him. He was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as an “Outstanding American” in 1993, for his great passion for and accomplishments in wrestling. The second mention was of a more unusual sort. According to “Chat with Phil Jackson” on ESPN LA, the Los Angeles Lakers coach has passed out this book to his team in the past as part of his ritual of assigning readings to players.