A Prayer for Owen Meany – (an early frontrunner for my favorite book of 2011)

My book club read this John Irving novel in January, and – for me at least – it was a great start to a new year of reading. Some books become favorites of mine due to a great, innovative or twisting plot (like last year’s Two on a Tower), some others due to a setting unlike I’ve encountered before (perhaps like The Hunger Games trilogy), and some are endearing because of a great character or characters. I would put last year’s reading of The Millenium Trilogy in this last category, with it’s refreshingly unique (anti-?) heroine, Lisbeth Salander. And now, one of my new favorite literary characters is Owen Meany.

“Owen (Meany) possessed a completely reliable frankness; you could trust him absolutely”

Owen Meany is an unlikely hero. A child of somewhat strange and reclusive parents, he was born with some sort of defect in his larynx, which rendered his voice into something not quite human-sounding. He also suffered from stunted growth – even as an adult never growing to five feet tall. It’s remarkable that he is able to overcome these “handicaps,” but he does- seemingly almost with ease. Irving starts out the novel with the narrator saying in the first paragraph that Meany “is the reason I believe in God.” That’s a pretty good hook to get one reading the rest of a book isn’t it? And if that’s not enough, in the SAME SENTENCE we also learn from the narrator that Meany “was the instrument of my mother’s death.” That’s enough to keep one reading too, I think.

The novel is also a story of the friendship between Owen and his classmate Johnny Wheelwright. Their friendship is an unlikely one. Johnny comes from a privileged family; Owen does not. Johnny is physically “normal” (if there is such a thing) while Owen is not. Owen is a brilliant student; Johnny is not. (or as Owen put it, “YOU’RE MAINLY SLOW. YOU’RE ALMOST AS SMART AS I AM, BUT YOU NEED TWICE THE TIME.”) Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that Owen spoke in all capital letters throughout the book – it’s that unhuman voice, you see. Their friendship endures in spite of circumstances that would wreck most. Throughout everything, Owen is fiercely loyal to Johnny. The book made me think a lot about friendship, actually. It made me kind of regret never having that one, best friend that Owen and Johnny had in each other. It made me wonder what that must be like..

Its hard to write in depth about this novel without revealing some spoilers, which I don’t really want to do, so I will just add that the book is also abundant with witty humor, and some of Irving’s characterizations nearly made me laugh out loud. For example, when describing a dog: “…the lumberyard dog, the Eastmans’ slobbering boxer, a mindlessly friendly beast with halitosis vile enough to give you visions of corpses uprooted from their graves…” Later, he describes one of the Wheelwright’s maids as “a short, heavyset woman with an ageless, blocky strength; yet her physical power was undermined by a slow mind and a brutal lack of confidence.” Later there is a woman who “wore a fur coat that was responsible for the death of countless small animals,” and so on, and so on

I heartily recommend this book. Has anyone else “out there” read this one. What did you think? What other Irving book would you recommend that I read next?

-Jay

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12 Comments

  1. Falaise said,

    January 31, 2011 at 8:17 am

    I keep coming across this book but have never got round to reading it. It does sound intriguing. Does the continual capitalisation of Owen’s speech not becoming wearing after a while?

    Like

    • Jay said,

      January 31, 2011 at 8:19 pm

      You know, I thought the all caps gimmick would get annoying or tiresome, but it never really did. I’d recommend making this book one of your 2,606… 🙂

      Like

  2. Dale Barthauer said,

    January 31, 2011 at 9:59 am

    I would say that it is now my favorite book that our book club has read. Although, Love In The Time of Cholera is still a very close second. It might be a tie. I thoroughly enjoyed Wheelright’s commentary on the church and churches in his community/life. The all-CAPS voice of Owen actually worked, I thought. Irving’s humor is brilliant in this book!

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    • Jay said,

      January 31, 2011 at 8:26 pm

      It’s certainly in my top five of our book club’s books – On the Road, Travels With Charley, The Red and the Black and also Love in the Time of Cholera would probably round out my list.

      There were so many funny passages I wanted to quote in my post, but I try to keep my posts down to a few paragraphs. I could’ve gone on and on about this book…

      Like

  3. January 31, 2011 at 11:14 am

    A Prayer for Owen Meany is the most hilarious book I have ever read. John Irving is hit and miss, but I would recommend “The World According to Garp” which was equally brilliant in it’s own right.

    I was less enamored with some other Irving works; these two are generally regarded as his best. I would stay away from ‘The Fourth Hand’ unless your a Green Bay Packers fan.

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    • Jay said,

      January 31, 2011 at 8:29 pm

      I think maybe I will give Garp a try, even though I remember disliking the movie adaptation. We learned at my book club meeting last week that the movie version of APFOM (Simon Birch) is wildly different from the novel. Maybe the same is true for Garp…

      Thanks for your recommendation!

      Like

  4. Alex said,

    February 1, 2011 at 5:26 am

    Owen Meany is probably in my top-10 books of all time. Thought the ending especially clever, considering the whole book. Read The World According to Garp and found it flat compared to this one.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      February 3, 2011 at 7:02 am

      Hmm… Now I’m back on the fence on Garp again. Maybe I will test drive it for a few dozen pages and see how I’m liking it. Thanks for your comments!
      -Jay

      Like

  5. February 1, 2011 at 9:57 pm

    I’ve heard nothing but great things about this book! I really have to get my butt in gear and just read it:)

    Like

    • Jay said,

      February 3, 2011 at 7:00 am

      Do it, Erica! 🙂 it’s kind of long, but I was through it in a couple weeks. I think you’ll like it.
      -Jay

      Like

  6. Jane said,

    May 3, 2012 at 10:16 pm

    This will probably end up in my Top 10 all time favorite books. There is something you love about the Owen character, an underdog kind of guy who could have been overlooked in life due to his peculiarities. Instead of being “labeled” as strange and shunned as we are all so quick to do, people gravitate to him. I didn’t mind the all caps parts as I generally looked forward to everything Owen had to say!

    Like

    • Jay said,

      May 7, 2012 at 5:39 pm

      Hi Jane,
      Thanks for commenting. I want to read this book again now. 🙂
      -Jay

      Like


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