Monday, June 21, 2010

A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY by John Irving (1992)

This is a novel that I re-read every year not only because of its plotting brilliance, but also because of the way I feel connected to my brother who died in 1994. It's a book that I gave him for his birthday in 1992 and it's one that I know he adored because he, like the narrator John Wheelwright and his best friend Owen Meany, attended a private boarding school for boys, and recognized some of his own antics in the pages of Irving's story.

There is a fatal incident with a baseball at the beginning of the book that's reminiscent of Robertson Davies' trick with the stone-filled snowball in FIFTH BUSINESS and that is no accident as Irving is an admitted fan of Davies. From that moment, the tale unfurls, in brilliant pacing with just the right amount of humour, social satire and political referencing. Irving shifts the narrative effortlessly from the 1950s/60s past to the 1980s present when Ronald Regan is the president and muddling about in the Iran/Contra scandal and his Star Wars policy, and the protagonist is teaching at BSS, a private school for girls in Toronto.

In an interview last fall at IFOA in Toronto, John Irving explained how for all of his novels he knows the last sentence first and from that is able to backfill the narrative. Here's that final line: "Oh God--please give him back! I shall keep asking You."

I think of the narrative structure of A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY as cyclical. Just consider its opening in relation to the end: "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."

If you admire 19th century novelists like Thomas Hardy or Charles Dickens, then you must read their late-20th century inheritor John Irving.

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