I don’t know how to properly express my love for this novel. Any review I give will pale in comparison to Irving’s opus and the only thing I can really say is that: if you haven’t read A Prayer for Owen Meany- you should and if you have read A Prayer for Owen Meany- then you should re-read it.
I was first introduced to John Wheelwright and Owen Meany by my high school English teacher and I don’t think I properly appreciated it at the time. Who appreciates anything when they’re sixteen? I’ve read it at least one more time since graduating so I opted to listen to the audio-book this go around. I highly recommend listening to Joe Barrett’s rendition.
“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice. Not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”
The story of Owen Meany is told in flashbacks by an adult John Wheelwright, now living in Toronto, in 1987 through a series of journal entries. Admittedly the “present” storyline pales in comparison to the action in the “past” but John’s current mental state is a direct response to his time with Owen Meany.
The boys, who despite vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds and religious upbringing, forge an unbreakable bond that lasts until Owen’s untimely death. Owen is small and light, and his larynx is fixed in a permanent scream; he is incredibly intelligent and a fiercely loyal friend. In 1953 New Hampshire, when John and Owen are eleven, John’s mother, Tabby, is struck by a Little League baseball hit by Owen and she dies instantly. Owen believes himself to be an instrument of God and his faith never waivers as he and John grow up.
We then rewind and see a bit more of John and Owen’s childhood. We are introduced to Dan Needham, a Harvard educated teacher with a passion for the stage, who marries Tabby and adopts John. John’s biological father is a mystery his mother never shared with anyone. We also meet the Eastman children, John’s wild cousins from the “North Country”, including Hester, who plays a pivotal role throughout John and Owen’s lives.
After we get back to the year of John’s mother’s death the story continues to move forward into Owen and John’s adolescent years. The boys attend Gravesend Academy, where Dan teaches, and Owen helps John with his school work. During high school Owen develops a following as THE VOICE at the school paper but it begins to get him in trouble during his senior year of high school.
Looming in the background of their teenage years is Owen’s belief he knows when he will die. In a childhood performance of A Christmas Carol (*sidebar- the story of the Nativity play is peak storytelling*) he sees his full name and date of death on Scrooge’s grave; this furthers Owen’s belief that he is God’s instrument. He begins to have a recurring dream that he will die a hero- and then the Vietnam War begins to escalate. Owen’s senior year trouble, which caused him to lose a scholarship, opens the door for him to join the Army to pay for college. The slow burn of the previous chapters begins to crescendo as Owen focuses all his intelligence and energy into the Army while his presumed death date approaches.
“LAST NITE I HAD A DREAM. NOW I KNOW FOUR THINGS. I KNOW THAT MY VOICE DOESN’T CHANGE – BUT I STILL DON’T KNOW WHY. I KNOW THAT I AM GOD’S INSTRUMENT. I KNOW WHEN I’M GOING TO DIE – AND NOW A DREAM HAS SHOWN ME HOW I’M GOING TO DIE. I’M GOING TO BE A HERO! I TRUST THAT GOD WILL HELP ME, BECAUSE WHAT I’M SUPPOSED TO DO LOOKS VERY HARD.”
This is storytelling at its finest. Every trivial plot point makes its importance known before the final paragraph. I wouldn’t change a word.