Tuesday, August 02, 2011

A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY by John Irving (1989) Lester & Orpen Dennys, 543 pages

I read A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY annually as a way of maintaining a continuing bond with my brother David who died in 1994. I gave him this copy for his birthday in May of 1992 and it is one of the novels that he enjoyed, set as it is in a boys' boarding school, a milieu in which he was himself immersed from ages 14-18.

The novel opens in the present of the late 1980s when Ronald Reagan is the President of the United States and embroiled in the Iran/Contra scandal and our narrator, John Wheelwright, is teaching English Literature to teenaged girls at the Bishop Strachan School in Toronto.

When I first read this novel, I was also teaching literature to 16-18 year old girls at another private school in Toronto, some of the very titles that Wheelwright teaches (including WUTHERING HEIGHTS, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and THE GREAT GATSBY) and I was living in a flat that was walking distance from Winston Churchill Park, so that familiarity hooked me even more.

What is the greatest appeal of this story is its Dickensian narrative approach (and I know from interviews with John Irving that he admires Dickens tremendously), whereby character is revealed layer upon layer by what they say, what they do and what is said about them. It is impossible not to fall and to fall hard for Owen Meany, Harriet Wheelwright and Hester-the-Molester, so fully realized as they are throughout the tale.

Structurally the book owes a great deal to Robertson Davies’ iconic novel FIFTH BUSINESS. And, while its narrative is driven by a stone hidden inside a snowball (the great prime mover in Davies’ tale), here it is a baseball that deals the hand of fate. A baseball that Owen Meany remarkably hits.

From the opening paragraph Irving has you onside as Wheelwright confesses, “ 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.” Don’t you want to hear that wrecked voice? Understand how the smallest person he ever knew became the instrument of his mother’s death?

Irving is a master of his craft. Not only are the voices distinct, but each symbol and image woven into the tapestry of the tale--from a taxidermy armadillo, to a dressmaker's dummy, to Owen's obsession with amputation and nuns that give him "the shivers"--is intentional and rife with meaning. From a literary perspective, A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY is worthy of close textual analysis. And, from a personal perspective, I cannot think of another book that makes me feel so viscerally a continuing connection with my little brother, when we too enjoyed the easy and devoted camaraderie that Owen and John demonstrate throughout Irving's incredible novel.


Beth Hoffman said...

Your post is gorgeous, Janet. So gorgeous that I read it twice.

I'm ashamed that I've not yet read this book, but now I will make it a priority and put it at the top of my list.

I'm so sorry you lost your brother David. (Wrapping my arms around you.)

Janet said...

You are so very sweet.

Katie said...

You've inspired me to re-read this incredible book. Thanks

The Well Read Wife said...

Isn't the power of great literature one of the most awesome things in the world? I can't think of a better way to pay tribute to your brother than by reading Irving's wonderful book (that you both enjoyed) each year.

I loved this book too. This post makes me want to pick it up and discover it all over again!

Janet said...

Oh, do read it again. Each time it is all-the-more familiar and a revelation.