Salvation and redemption have long been among John Irving’s central themes, though they are not usually presented in such directly theological terms as in A Prayer for Owen Meany. In his earlier novels, especially The World According to Garp (1978), The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), and The Cider House Rules (1985), the central characters search for meaning in the midst of chaos and absurdity, and find it in human connectedness, represented metaphorically by the family—often, odd families indeed. A Prayer for Owen Meany details the friendship—from childhood in the 1950’s to Owen Meany’s death in the late 1960’s—of two boys who grow up in Gravesend, New Hampshire, at opposite ends of the social scale: Owen’s reclusive family owns the local granite quarry, whereas John’s family boasts of Mayflower origins and functions as the local gentry. Their roles are reversed and confused, however, in the course of the narrative: Owen, a diminutive boy who even as an adult is never more than five feet tall, and whose voice-rendered by Irving in capital letters—is a prepubescent squeak, becomes a Christ figure with powers over life and death, whereas John Wheelwright leads a rather uneventful adult life, even remaining a virgin, having been convinced by Owen’s prescience and his sacrificial death that there is in fact a purpose to life—and to death.
The novel is narrated as a memoir by John Wheelwright, who has lived for twenty years in Toronto, where he teaches English at an Anglican secondary school for girls. The narrative describes the childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood of the two principal characters, interspersed with brief accounts of John’s current life in Toronto in 1987. His routine, almost monastic existence in Toronto contrasts sharply with the frequently tumultuous years of his friendship with Owen, whose energy, intelligence, and sense of purpose belie his childlike stature.
Imagery and actions identifying Owen Meany with Christ begin early in the novel and accumulate rapidly to the climactic scene of his death. When he is a small child, his size and lightness seem to the other children a “miracle”; for the same reason, he is cast as the Christ Child in a church Christmas pageant. Owen’s father tells John that Owen’s was a virgin birth—that his parents’ marriage was never consummated—and Owen “plays God” to save John from being drafted during the Vietnam War by cutting off one of his fingers with a diamond wheel used to engrave granite monuments. Owen foresees the date of his own death, and has a recurrent dream that he will die saving small children; the fact that both predictions are accurate lends to Owen a Godlike foreknowledge.
Yet A Prayer for Owen Meany is far from being a solemn theological tract. John Irving’s characteristically ebullient humor erupts throughout the novel in slapstick scenes, boyish pranks, and even in the ironic contrast between Owen’s small voice and the large print in which it leaps authoritatively from the page. As the Christ Child in the Christmas pageant, Owen feeds lines to the frightened boy being lowered to the stage on a pulley as the Announcing Angel, while the back ends of donkeys faint from the heat; as a student at the Gravesend Academy, he has the basketball team carry the Volkswagen Beetle of a less-than-beloved teacher to the stage of the Great Hall, where, in a scene of slapstick comedy, it is subsequently demolished by faculty members attempting to remove it. The blending of the serious and the comic reaches its apotheosis early in the novel, when the one ball that Owen Meany ever hits in Little League baseball kills John Wheelwright’s mother, Tabitha. The fact that Owen Meany is the agent of John’s mother’s death does not mar the boys’ friendship; indeed, it brings them closer together, partly because John knows that Owen worshiped his mother (and for the rest of his life keeps her dressmaker’s dummy in his bedroom as a kind of...
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