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?