On A Prayer for Owen Meany

Posted by Jack on 2018-06-03 at 19:00
Tagged: books
TitleA Prayer for Owen Meany
AuthorJohn Irving

I'm an ex-Catholic atheist that picked up this book based on some recommendations on baseball forums (of all places).

This book was far better than I expected. It only loosely counts as baseball literature (compared to fic. lit. like The Art of Fielding, which I also enjoyed), but it really stands out as an expansive tale about growing up with the inimitable Owen Meany and his effect on basically everyone in the fictional town of Gravesend, NH.

The story gets off to a bit of a slow start, but it only feels that way because the book needs to lay a broad foundation for the story that Irving unfolds masterfully. With hindsight, each bit of lore that seems tangential early on is important later and that's a sign of great writing. Once you've become familiar with the core of characters, the story flits easily from one time period to another, one character arc to another, without ever being boring or confusing. Irving has a talent for brief yet powerful description and dialogue that makes even the most everyday scene carry weight.

In threads about this book there seems to be a lot of hand-wringing about the religious aspect. I will admit some of the recounted hymns and prayers can be a bit tedious for a non-believer, but at the same time the religious characters in the book are real and flawed and despite the equation of faith with courage, the book is actually critical of the blindly dogmatic aspect of religion. The supernatural/divine element of the book is light and restricted to Owen Meany himself, so there's no sappy come-to-Jesus tearful conversion crap.

There is also a very political component of the book. As the story moves into the Vietnam Era, the characters generally take a strong anti-war stance for a variety of reasons. Time passing is usually underlined by describing the situation in Vietnam, and characters compare the euphemistic doublespeak of the government with what they know is actually happening on the ground. The first person narrator, John Wheelwright, also flashes forward to 1987 ("modern day") and offers criticism of Reagan and Iran-Contra as evidence of American misdeeds. This might have felt stale just a few years after the book was published, but in the world of George W. Bush and Donald Trump a lot of the criticisms aimed at the insanity of the American public are still well targeted.

Where this book really shines though is weaving all of the various stories of Owen, John and a large cast of Gravesenders into one great story while defying your predictions, but also without leaving any loose ends. Maybe I read too much sequel-obsessed science fiction but it's rare that I've felt so satisfied by the end of a story and that's why I had to give it 5 stars instead of a more typical 4.