Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Book Review: A Prayer for Owen Meany

**I'm no longer calling these "Summer Reading Reviews" since, alas, summer is just about gone. Okay, I say "alas," but I really mean "hooray," because, at least in the Pacific Northwest, summer is my least favorite season.**

Title: A Prayer for Owen Meany
Author: John Irving
Publisher: Ballantine

It will not surprise anyone who has ever traveled down the sidebar of this blog that I am a big fan of singer/songwriter Carolyn Arends. There is no musical artist in my opinion who combines musical virtuosity with lyrics of such depth, intelligence, gentle humor and relevance. Seriously, if you have not had the pleasure of experiencing her songs and stories, visit her site, listen to some clips, read her blog, drink it up -- she is a Providence-given oasis in the desert of hokiness and banality that unfortunately encompasses much of the genre of Christian music.

So, back in 2000, Carolyn Arends wrote an incredible book called Living the Questions: Making Sense of the Mess and Mystery of Life. You should buy this book. Okay, the Carolyn Arends commercial is now finished, and the review of the A Prayer for Owen Meany commences.

In her book, in Chapter 16, The Donation, Carolyn writes the following passage:

As I write this, I consider for the first time the slightly eerie significance of Rich's [Rich Mullins -- a singer/songwriter of almost equal power as Carolyn Arends -- who died in 1997] great love for John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany -- the funny and ultimately heartbreaking story of a boy who had a premonition in which he saw his tombstone and some of the tragic details of his eventual death. When Rich was encouraging me (ordering me, really) to read the book, he told me that anyone who did was instantly inducted into a secret Owen Meany Society. He claimed a simple recitation of the novel's last sentence could bring tears to the eyes of any club member. He was right, and the tears come now as I remember the prayer that ends the story. O God -- please give him back! I shall keep asking you. (pg. 174)

Any club that includes Carolyn Arends and Rich Mullins, for whom I have unreserved respect, is a club in which I would like to be. So after reading LTQ, I went to my local Barnes & Noble (not a difficult task, since I worked there at the time) and purchased A Prayer for Owen Meany. I sat down to read it, made it almost through the first chapter, then put the book down in boredom, filed it with the novels on my bookshelves, and mostly forgot about it. Every once in a while, when I would be re-reading LTQ or simply walking by my novels, I would see it wink at me from its granite-green spine.

So, the years went by. In the meantime, I had a wee bookclub with my dear friend, Kadie, and we picked as a selection Irving's most famous novel, The World According to Garp. I hated The World According to Garp. With purple passion. Extremely. Even remembering it now, I'm disgusted that I wasted so many hours on that lame book. Also, the movie, The Cider House Rules, clouded my view of John Irving beyond redemption. I consigned him to the outer rings of authorial hell and went on with my life. I even thought about selling off A Prayer for Owen Meany, should my hypothetical garage sale ever become reality.

Then, then, then . . . I went to a week-long Christian family retreat up in British Columbia, Canada. One of the main presenters at that retreat was Carolyn Arends (not by coincidence). We ended up on a hike together through the beautiful woods that cover most of the Pacific Northwest, and I finally got to "talk books" with someone whose breadth and scope of literary knowledge inspires me and whose ability to cull from that knowledge and add to it in creative output humbles me. So, of course, what is the first novel she brings up? Yep. A Prayer for Owen Meany. Oy!

So, I set my jaw and gritted my teeth and picked up the durned thing. And I read it through -- every single word. And now I have done. And the worst part is that I suffered through the 617 pages, and I still don't get to belong to The Club. My eyes will never well up with tears when I hear that last sentence: O God -- please give him back! I shall keep asking you. Here's my prayer: O God, I shall keep asking You to make John Irving stop writing books. Trees have better reasons to give their lives.

That said, the last third of this book was not a horrible as the first two. That's the most positive part of my review. No, wait, I also must say that John Irving does not lack imagination. His premise is interesting. I just guess that I hate the way he writes. I must admit, though, that none of my favorite novelists are men (excepting writers of children's literature, which is split between the sexes). Almost all of my favorite non-fiction writers in every genre are men. But, for tales woven from imagination, I turn to those of the feminine kind. Isabel Paterson, Jane Austen, L.M. Montgomery, Sandra Dallas, Isabel Allende, Agatha Christie -- all chicks. P.J. O'Rourke, Bill Bryson, C.S. Lewis, Jim Powell, Stephen Cox, Thomas Sowell -- all dudes. So, maybe, John Irving was working with a handicap from the get-go. Also, I had previous prejudices based upon his other works to deal with. So, out of the gate it wasn't looking too good for ol' Irving.

My main quarrel with this book was that there wasn't a single character in it for whom I cared a lick. Good novelists, in my opinion, will make you care deeply about the characters and what happens to them, but I didn't care at all what happened to any of the people in Owen Meany. Maybe John Irving's voice is a little too detached for me -- his directions for the characters are a little too obscure and schizophrenic. He delights in making his characters do or say things that just do not ring true to me as ways for people to behave or talk. I know that in life, in the make-up of a human soul, there is no set definition for "normal," but the whole scope of the novel seems so disjointed and off-kilter, that you wonder if John Irving actually interacts with humans in the course of his life. People do weird things, but, even in their idiosyncrasies, there are consistencies. No one acts like the people that John Irving writes about. And so, since you never really get to know these people, you end up not caring about them.

Here's the novel in a nutshell: In New Hampshire ("Live free or die!" -- best state motto ever, but I digress) there are two families, the Wheelwrights and the Meanys. The Wheelwrights are the oldest family in Gravesend, NH, with the gentility and wealth that comes with established names and distinctive bloodlines. The Meanys are no-names, poor strange folks on the margins of Gravesend, owners of a granite quarry that encapsulates the reality of long, hard work with little financial return. Owen Meany and John Wheelwright are best friends -- Owen is small in stature, but towering in spirit. John is Mr. Average with a mysterious past. Owen inadvertantly kills John's mom, Tabitha Wheelwright, with an errantly hit baseball. Owen inadvertantly kills John's neighbor's dog with an errantly thrown football. John doesn't kill anybody. Instead of a city ordinance's being issued to bar Owen Meany from participating in any recreational sports, life goes on without any indignant commentary. There's a bunch of weird stuff with Owen being all spooky about Angels of Death, Catholics, Christmas pageants, Dickens' A Christmas Carol, his own death, and John's unknown father, and also a rather disgusting depiction of a stuffed armadillo. Oh, and Owen Meany also has a very eerie, distinctive voice, which the author reminds us of constantly by putting all of Owen's dialogue and writings into CAPITAL letters (which will give the reader a headache when Owen goes on a prolonged rant). This, of course, all ties in with that bogeyman of the Annoying Generation (Baby Boomers): The Vietnam War.

An aside: Personally, from the little I know, I think that the Vietnam War was ultimately a tragic, yet inevitable given U.S. foreign policy since World War I, mistake. Nine times out of ten, war is a terrible solution to any problem. It lends legitimacy to the enemy. It destroys more lives than it saves. But, I hate to think of people suffering anywhere. Was the cure in Vietnam worse than the disease? I do not know. Either way, many people were destined to die by the evil man does to man. It sickens me to think that Vietnam veterans were treated so shamefully by many in America. And, since a lot of the anti-war prostesters seem to have been motivated by a love of communism rather than respect for human life, I do not admire them. I do admire Christian conscientious objectors, and those who worked for peace without degrading American ideals. Nothing killed more people in the Twentieth Century than that curse of communism. Abortion got close. My two cents.

As Carolyn Arends wrote, Owen Meany did have a premonition of his death and a vision of his tombstone. I know that this was supposed to be creepy and spine-tingling and deep and riveting. I just couldn't get into it, at least not until the last third. Around page 200, when I realized I was only 1/3 of the way through, I almost wept. I suppose I could have abandoned the reading for the second time, but I was determined to read through a book that affected so deeply two amazing artists like Rich Mullins and Carolyn Arends.

Probably the most creepy contrivance that Irving intended was one I had been expecting. I don't want to write more, in case this review does not dissuade you from pursuing this tome. Suffice it to say, it was a climactic moment that only made me go, "Well, duh." One of the plot turns that wholly surprised me was another I do not want to reveal, so I'll just say that the finger thing caught me by surprise. Although, again, the finger thing does not jibe with the way Irving presents Owen Meany's well-established belief in fate and predestination -- it just seems so inconsistent with his character, which is why I was surprised. E-mail me if your interest is piqued and you need to know more but wish to avoid this ponderous novel. I'll clue you in on all of it.

Carolyn Arends and the back of my mass-market edition of Owen Meany both talk about how "funny" or "comic" this novel is. Yeah, if you find train wrecks funny. Except that Carolyn has a great sense of humor, so there's another mystery of Owen Meany.

I think that what I disliked the most about this book is that, in the first paragraph, the character, John Wheelwright, asserts that "I am a Christian because of Owen Meany." If anything, by the end of the novel, it is confirmed that John Wheelwright may believe in a supernatural power because of Owen Meany, but that what he seems to believe most is that that supernatural power is Owen himself. I guess that I was looking for more. Not a Christian novel, perhaps, but a novel about Christianity. If anything, this is a novel about discipleship to a prophet, not to the Son of God. His faith is based upon the things he sees, not the revelation of the heart that only comes from the Creator. Blessed are those who have not seen, yet still believe. John's faith is the kind given by man to man. His last prayer is one requesting the resurrection of his own messiah, not professed faith in the resurrected Messiah. If Christianity were left out of it, I would have a more charitable attitude toward this book. Maybe.

I can see why this book became an "International Bestseller." John Irving is obviously disgusted with the country of the United States of America, and, since so much of the world loves to read Americans bashing their country, the international audience probably ate it up. He has his insipid character, John Wheelwright, complain about Ronald Reagan (dating this book forever at its 1989 publication date) every time the novel journeys out of the past and takes up a contemporary narrative. It jarred me to read such vitriol from the "mouth" of a character who seems so emotionally disengaged throughout the book. Plus, his complete obsession with a country he no longer calls his own doesn't fit with a man living life by the decree of predestination. You ask: why should he care? Does he dislike America because of Owen Meany's death? If he believes that Owen knew when he was going to die, that he was going to die a hero, and Owen made peace with that, then why does he get so worked up over the affairs of man? Did Owen's death set him on fire? If so, why is his life so unobtrusive? It's this uneasy mixture of anger and resignation that makes it so hard to care about John Wheelwright. You mostly just want him to shut up.

The last third of the novel finds the narrative picking up considerable speed. The ending is interesting, even if, by that point, you've come to dislike the characters so much you are just racing to the end. It wraps up with all of the mysteries solved and the fervent prayer offered up. Even so, one burning question still remains: why in the world does Carolyn Arends like this book?

Theory the First: Carolyn likes this book because it is tied in her memory to Rich Mullins, her mentor and friend, whom, I am sure, she misses terribly. It connects her to him, since he had a love for this book. Any reservations she had about the book's awfulness have faded away in time because of her affectionate association of it with Rich.

Theory the Second: Carolyn is Canadian, and the novel is very kind to Canadians. In a burst of patriotism, she decided to eradicate the obvious awfulness of this novel from her mind, and focus instead on the loving descriptions of Toronto and the niceness and decency (which are very real) of Canadians.

Theory the Third: Carolyn read through this book after an unfortunate encounter with saki at a Japanese restaurant and does not to this day realize that this book is awash in awfulness.

Theory the Fourth: Carolyn really does actually like this novel, and she and I just have extremely different views about what constitutes a "good novel." She also secretly hates Jane Austen.

Jason said, "What if Theory the Fourth is correct and she really does just love this book? Does that change anything for you?"

My answer: No, not at all. Nothing she likes or dislikes could ever take away from the amazing art she has produced that has enriched my life and my journey of faith incredibly. What revelation about Carolyn could change my opinion of her character, if not of her genius? If she ceased to love and worship the Lord. That's about it. Even if she secretly (or not so secretly) hates Jane Austen, even that wouldn't change a whit my admiration. And that says a lot.

Read Living the Questions: Making Sense of the Mess and Mystery of Life. It is really good. Right up there with The Jesus I Never Knew (which Carolyn Arends recommended to me also). As for A Prayer for Owen Meany, well . . .

Overall Grade: C-
Readability: D
Subject Interest: C+
Illustrations: N/A
Recommended? No! We've got to stop John Irving! Trees are dying needlessly! Seriously - A BIG BOOOOO-HISSSSS (to use Owen Meany's voice).
Next up: FDR's Folly by Jim Powell


Arielle said...

No! We've got to stop John Irving! Trees are dying needlessly!


Thanks for the tip. I've never felt compelled to seek out John Irving's books and now I never will.

CrazyJo said...

I don't think I've read any of his books, and now that I know who was responsible for the awful Cider House Rules movie I will be sure to avoid him like the plague. Thanks for the witty review - now when are you going to write a book?

Billy D said...

That's a good question Jo.
I meet a lot of folks in the blogsphere who have the talen, but do not do it.
Justine, you obviously have the talent, now do it!

Justine said...

Those who can -- do.
Those who cannot do -- teach.
Those who cannot even teach -- write reviews, especially nit-picking, highly-critical ones.

Tee-hee. I have always wanted to write a novel, but I don't think I'm creative enough. My current plans are to write a biography of Carole Lombard. Your kind comments are much appreciated, and encourage me beyond belief -- you know not what you do...I'm just going to keep posting to this blog with niceness like this coming at me.

One thing that being part of this blogging world has taught me is what my dad learned about acting years ago by being in community theater -- there are a heck of a lot of talented people out there and a lot of potential to let your heart be broken by your art. It's about finding joy in a smaller sphere. I may never write a book, let alone see it published, but I get a big kick out of typing up these wee posties and having them read by such a respected group, and reading your thoughts, gripes, and revelations in turn.

Peace to all!

Flicka Spumoni said...


I LOVED. LOVED, LOVED A Prayer for Owen Meany, although I agree with you about Garp and Cider House. Ownen Meany is probably one of my favorite literary characters of all time.

I thought the foreshadowing of his mothers death, when Owen said he heard her screaming like a banshee, was brilliant. I aslo found the irony worked into his mother's death - the boy who needed her love the most killing her with a ball whose chance he had hitting was less then being hit by lightening - to be one of the finest examples in American Lit.

I loved how the seemingly random events in his life found purpose and design in the way he died. And much more - but I'll spare you.

So, we disagree. But, as always, a superb review. You have a wonderful way of expressing yourself.

Justine said...

Flicka --

Well, as one of my favorite writers, Stephen Cox, would say: "That's what makes a horse race!"

It wouldn't surprise me that another creative person loved that book. I suppose you get to be in The Club? Darn.

I guess I just found the book as self-conscious and pretentious and annoying as Garp. But with a better ending.

Have you ever read Isabel Allende? To me, she does well what Irving stumbles at: setting the atmosphere for a character's life, journeying with them through experiences, finding relevance in seemingly inconsequential events at later points.

Well, as Elizabeth Bennet might say: "You have chosen your fault well. I really can't laugh at it." Since Flicka, Carolyn, and Rich get to be in The Club, I'll sign up for the junior auxiliary membership, wherein I get to hang with you guys in heaven, but have to go away when APFOM is discussed. 'Kay?


Linda said...

Came across your blog when I was actually searching for Eddie Askew painting retreats. Totally agree that "A Prayer for Owen Meany" was a dreadful book, I just couldn't believe in his character. It was the first book we had to read for a readers' group a few years ago. I was the only one who didn't like it, probably the only Christian in the group too...
An incomparably better book is Eddie Askew's recent autobiography, The Edge of Daylight"
Linda, Scotland