A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

To be honest, felt a little pressure when I picked up A Prayer for Owen Meany to ponder it for this blog. Kim wanted to see what I thought about it in relation to The World According to Garp. Also, I’ve got friends who are seriously pissed about the apparent situation where literary people shake their heads at you if you say writers like John Irving or John Steinbeck (whom I adore) are among your favorite writers. That just felt like a lot of pressure.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Jennifer Weiner)

But, let’s set all that aside for a moment. Let’s get down to A Prayer for Owen Meany.  The story is told by a character named Johnny Wheelwright and relates to his memory of, and how he was changed by, his friend Owen Meany. Though most of the important events happen to, or involve, Owen, the story really centers (at least to me) on how this all effects Johnny.

Owen is a peculiar child, excessively small and possessing an extremely odd voice:

            In Sunday school, we developed a form of entertainment based on abusing Owen Meany, who was so small that not only did his feet not touch the floor when he sat in his chair–his knees did not extend to the edge of his seat; therefore, his lefs stuck out straight, like the legs of a doll. It was as if Owen Meany had been born without realistic joints.


            In Sunday school, when we held Owen up in the air–especially, in the air!–he protested so uniquely. We tortured him, I think, in order to hear his voice; I used to think his voice came from another planet. Now I’m convinced it was a voice not entirely of this world.

            “PUT ME DOWN!” he would say in a strangled, emphatic falsetto. “CUT IT OUT! I DON’T WANT TO DO THIS ANYMORE. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. PUT ME DOWN! YOU ASSHOLES!”

However, Owen is far from meek. Indeed, he indeed becomes a most amazing individual:

            Directly opposite the Main Academy Building, the headmaster was getting into his camelhair overcoat; his wife, Sam, was brushing the nap of that pretty coat for him, and kissing her husband good-bye for the day. It would be a bad day for the headmaster–a FATED day, Owen Meany might have called it–but I’m sure Randy White didn’t have his eyes on the future that morning. He thought he was finished with Owen Meany. He didn’t know that, in the end, Owen Meany would defeat him; he didn’t know about the vote of “no confidence” the faculty would give him–or the decision of the Board of Trustees to not renew his appointment as headmaster. He couldn’t have imagined what a travesty Owen Meany’s absence would make of the commencement exercises that year–how such a timid, rather plain, and much-ignored student, who was the replacement valedictorian of our class, would find the courage to offer as a valedictory only these words: “I am not the head of this class. The head of this class is Owen Meany; he is The Voice of our class–and the only voice we want to listen to.” Then that good, frightened boy would sit down–to tumultuous pandemonium: our class raising their voices for The Voice, bedsheets and more artful banners displaying his name in capital letters (of course), and the chanting that drowned out the headmaster’s attempts to bring us to order.

            “Owen Meany! Owen Meany! Owen Meany!” cried the Class of ’62.

Owen may be small and have a strange voice, but he is indeed ‘fated’ to do great things. He is chosen by god, though perhaps not like you might think. Still, even though Owen is the one chosen and the book details his life minutely, the book is still about Johnny. Or rather, his observation of Owen and how Owen impacts his life and his faith in god.

Well, that’s all fine and good…but that’s all just summary. I suppose the real question, the question I feel all the pressure about mentioned above, is: what do I think?

Frankly, I liked A Prayer for Owen Meany a great deal. I think I may have even liked it better than The World According to Garp. It has a great story with great characters and great description. There is also a real touching pull to it.

However, personally, I still only liked it so much. It is still the style you should expect from Irving, and Irving is more of a maximalist than is my taste. A Prayer for Owen Meany just seemed thicker than it needed to be, and that made the pacing different than I would have wanted. It also seemed like there was a little bit of loose-end tying toward the end as opposed to natural development of events.

Of course, that’s all personal. It is still a good book, even if there were things I didn’t like about it. How’s that? I think I’ve managed to answer the people above about A Prayer for Owen Meany in a way that probably satisfies no one, other than perhaps me. I call that a job well done.

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