A Prayer for Owen Meany

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

America, according to John Irving in this novel, has been declining morally for the past thirty years, and there is an ever-increasing abundance of American pastimes which give “good disaster.” So Irving gives his readers--or, at least, gives John Wheelwright, the narrator of this strange novel--a new messiah, Owen Meany. Meany, who believes he is God’s instrument, is literally a pip-squeak: his classmates pass him back and forth over their heads when the teacher is out of the room, and his voice is tiny, mouselike, though what he teaches Wheelwright and prophesies with that voice is BIG. Meany even predicts correctly the exact date of his own death.

While playing baseball Meany hits Wheelwright’s mother on her left temple and kills her. That was ordained by God, Meany assures Wheelwright; and strangest of all the strange twists here is that Wheelwright becomes Meany’s unquestioning disciple. So devoted is he that he allows Meany the seer to saw off one of his fingers to keep him out of Vietnam (though Wheelwright ends up in Canada anyway, sans the finger but with a bellyfull of disgust for America).

Irving’s characters are always grotesque and unreflective, his stories campy, his humor preppy, and his interest now--after abortion in THE CIDER HOUSE RULES--is in religion. The problem is that this novel subordinates individual free will to predestination, with Meany outdoing John Calvin and Ralph Waldo Emerson by throwing himself...

(The entire section is 572 words.)