Friday, January 07, 2005

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

A book review by Zinta Aistars

* Hardcover: 672 pages
* Publisher: Modern Library, 2002
* ISBN: 0679642595
* $23.95

It's not often my son--a well read young man in his early 20's--recommends a book to me with such effusive enthusiasm. How could I not read "A Prayer for Owen Meany" with that kind of encouragement? Granted, son and I have very different tastes in tomes. But Irving is actually an author more my style, and the novel I just finished prior to this one, "Da Vinci's Code," was more his style. I'm always willing to stretch. We traded books.

Ah, what a refreshing pause! I had been somewhat disappointed in Dan Brown's literary style (or lack of) and so John Irving's much more complex, much more nuanced, much more intellectual approach to storytelling was renewed pleasure in words. I gave a nod of approval to my offspring even as I turned the first pages.

Alas, I turned them more slowly as chapters wore on...

Irving has indeed created an odd couple of characters: Owen Meany, the dwarfish youth with high-pitched voice of stunning self-importance that wavers between arrogance one moment and self-sacrificial lamb of God the next, and his sidekick Johnny Wheelwright, illegitimate child of a striking, freespirited woman soon killed off by a baseball Owen accidentally slams across the baseball field during a Little League game to hit its killing blow against her temple. Not that this would destroy the odd friendship of these two. Indeed, it bonds them for life. As for Owen, he doesn't believe in accidents, especially not this one. What transpires through the remainder of the story, tracing the lives of these two from children into adulthood, is a complex weave of seeming circumstance into eventual climactic conclusion that rather neatly ties many loose threads together into a tight knot. Owen has foreseen his own death by a visionary dream, and he never doubts, at least not until the final days of his life, that this dream is the beacon guiding him home (home being, for Owen, heaven for those who would enter through the gates of martyrdom).

In the process of these two strange lives, topics of destiny and fate, religion, American politics and foreign policy, various rites of passage from childhood into adulthood, and other miscellaneous lighter and deeper issues are undertaken. These, too, all come together into the neat knot at the book's end.

I won out in the book exchange with my son, no argument there. Irving is a quality writer. But, although I have yet to read his other works, I suspect this one is not his best. The ideas he undertakes are fascinating enough, yet I found myself unmoved by either Owen's fate or Johnny's somewhat victimized standing by. Perhaps we all need more of a mirroring of our own experiences to truly lose ourselves in a book, and while I did not have those experiences that might bond, my son obviously did. One vote this way, one vote that.

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