By The Rev. Christopher Pyles, St. John's, Bellefonte
Upon casting a wide net in search of possibilities for a church book discussion group, a seminary classmate suggested A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. While this book is by no means new – it was first published in 1989 – it was new to me, and to most of the book group. A woman from my last parish cautioned, “That’s not a novel – that’s a doorstop!” – and indeed, at 635 pages, it is not a read for the faint of heart. Moreover, at times, the book’s subject matter drifts away from standard church book group fare. But the participants in our group found it worthy of their efforts.
The title character, Owen Meany, is a diminutive young man with a voice that could cut steel. The book’s narrator, John Wheelwright, is Owen’s best friend, and tells the entire story of Owen’s remarkable life. The setting in which we meet Owen is Sunday School at the Episcopal Church in fictional Gravesend, New Hampshire, around 1950. Because of his almost doll-like size, Owen is an object of both fascination and contempt by his classmates. As Owen is literally lifted up by the other students and passed around over their heads for sport over his vociferous objections, the only repercussion when the teacher returns is her saying, “Owen, get down from up there!” Yet this scene sets the stage for Owen’s entire short life: despite – or perhaps because of – his unusual voice, appearance and demeanor, Owen was destined not to be a shrinking violet. People were compelled to interact with him: young and old, male and female, Protestant and Catholic, rich and poor.
Early in the book, we find John and Owen playing Little League baseball one summer afternoon in Gravesend. John’s mother, known as Tabby, is in the stands. Just as she turns to wave at, and walk toward, someone higher in the bleachers, Owen – whose batting average is .000 – hits a line drive that connects with Tabby’s temple in just the wrong place. She drops dead. A formerly single mother who had only recently married the good-natured Dan Needham, Tabby had never revealed to her son John or the rest of her family the identity of John’s father. As the Wheelwrights were one of Gravesend’s founding, and most prominent, families, this was a source of much speculation and gossip among the townspeople. John spends the most of the rest of the book trying, with Owen’s help, to figure out who his mother was waving at the moment she was struck dead, and who his father is. John does not blame Owen for his mother’s death.
Owen’s family situation is just as interesting. At age 10, his parents – the owners of the local granite quarry – inform him that he was immaculately conceived. Owen believes them, and feels that, as a result, he is God’s special instrument, and is destined to – in an obviously Christ-like way – save the lives of many. This destiny is played out in a recurring dream that Owen has, and in a vision in which the date of his own death was revealed to him.
The parallels between Christ’s life and Owen’s become more pronounced as the book progresses. Owen is portrayed as a precocious young man with an interest in, and understanding of, religion far beyond his years. He embraces the notion of personal sacrifice for the benefit of others, even to the point of death. His peers – including John – frequently do not understand his actions or his motivations, and at times think Owen must be crazy. Owen stands up for the helpless, and frequently questions the authority and wisdom of the powers that be. He is wise. He also has a relationship that is never fully defined with John’s cousin, Hester, who is a kind of Mary Magdalene figure – worldly, out of the mainstream, but devoted to Owen.
Throughout the book, John, who is telling the story from the then-contemporary vantage point of 1988, foreshadows the extraordinary events surrounding the last days of Owen’s life. Rich in symbolism, the book forces the reader to look at life, relationships, and religion in a different but useful way. While almost unbelievable at times, the events of the narrative are compelling enough to cause the reader to want to believe they are, or could be, true.
The book is a coming of age story, in a way, but also an exploration of the changing attitudes about religion, government, race, gender, and family that were all hallmarks of the era in question. While Irving would have been a contemporary of the characters, the book is not autobiographical, nor judgmental. In fact, someone could easily read the book and consider it principally the story of two best friends growing up in a fraught era, alongside the various issues facing the country at the time.
Although long, the book on the whole is as compelling as the character of Owen Meany himself. Highly recommended for personal reading, with the right church group, it could go over well and spark a lengthy and spirited discussion.