I stumbled across this 1989 novel courtesy of my boyfriend’s dad’s “must read before you die” list. Now this book is the 7th novel of John Irving, and the only one that I have read- but it was overall a good read with arbitrary anecdotes, sporadic symbols but tied loose ends served together like a package deal at the end of the story.
The story alternate between recounting the protagonist’s John Wheelwright memories of growing up with his best friend Owen Meany the 1950s and 1960s in New Hampshire town and diary entries from his life currently in 1987.
Owen is light, puny, has a shrill voice and believes he is God’s- seeking out to fulfill a fate he brings upon himself. This story follows two best friends, interweaving Owen’s story with John’s retrospective wisdom targeting a loss of innocence, a symbolic childhood and a very American approach to faith.
Meany has an obsession with Vietnam. His mother is dead. His father is lacking. The protagonist is bland, boring, neutral and mostly identities.
Currently, the virgin and single man, works as a teacher in Toronto while doubting his faith and questioning the past, his psyche linked with politics.
The main thread of the 1950’s is John and Owens relationship where Owen is described as having a surreal kind of high pitch voice and a miniature physique and he is targeted in school, but John grows quite fond of him as Owen grows fonder of John’s mother, Tabitha and Dan Needham, a local private school drama school teacher who marries his mother and grandmother. Needham ends up being a father figure for the boys incepted by his gift to them of a stuffed armadillo head.
Reading this story I really enjoyed Needham’s presence, he was quite calm, possessed, collected and knew how to handle the boys. He is one of those flat characters that come off with just enough spark to play off the edge of mentor.
The most critical scene of this book is while the boys are playing in a Little League baseball game Owen finally hits the ball but it strikes Tabitha’s temple, killing her in a flash. Within the same flash Owen becomes obsessed with his idea that he is an instrument of god and his fate has been bestowed upon him, this is when he removes the claws of the armadillo to show this as an image. This entire interweavement exemplifies what this book was: an anecdotal series of symbols, events and occurrence all linked by Owen’s devotion to God and by his self imposed prophecy.
More events occur such as when Meany reads Scrooge’s grave stone in a play where he acts as baby Jesus and becomes obsessed with the idea that he saw his name, his day of death and is again psyched that he is God’s instrument.
Owen Meany’s unquestioned belief in the purpose of all things keeps you actually believing with him. Yes, this child is ridiculous. He is just so peculiar, you wonder if he does know something, if this is real- or if he is just little and foolish. But the magic that surrounds Meany keeps you hooked.
Whatever he does, whether Owen is writing an editorial column, dating John’s sexy cousin Hester and practicing with John on a basketball manoeuvre he called “The Shot” for no explicable reason- I enjoyed listening to Owen’s recounts through the protagonist’s humble sight. Especially because this sequence of meaningless events all end up giving meaning at the end of the story, in a fashion that an optimist would hope that life does.
It is throughout this transition that I particularly enjoy. Owen as his voice defect, his small human nature, his prior bullied body ends up stirring love, fear and a path for people to follow like a clear-cut reason. He commands respect. He orders authority. He stays quiet, kind and pure. He states simply. What attracts me to his character is his ability to simply be and know. There was too much religious allusion in the book for me to enjoy the overarching theme of faith in friendship and the fate of humanity. It is human and important to believe in something and forget your own inhibition- this book captures that quite perfectly.
Owen has a recurring dream that Vietnamese children will be saved by him in combat and that he will end up dead from the damage, a hero. He says he believes his life paves him out to assume active duty and to die on the day he saw on Scrooge’s grave but John and Hester are displeased; pleading this is only a dream.
Throughout the book the sprinkling of President Kennedy remarks and the Vietnam War make for a loose commentary on political stances but with no clear image seaming the lines together. Maybe I didn’t catch it- but I don’t think the political or societal remark was anything more beyond “America- it’s done some things that are bad!”
There is a flash forward in the book, confirming that Owen dies young where at Owen’s funeral John at the funeral listens to Mr. and Mrs. Meany describe him as “like the Christ Child” because of his persona and his alleged immaculate conception.
The book flashes back and Owen is working as a casualty officer, bringing the bodies of Arizona soldiers home from California where the brother of a diseased solider starts showing off a grenade, talking violently about killing the people of Vietnam. As a large group of Vietnamese children arrive at the airport, Owen thinks quickly and sees that he will be using the grenade to kill the children. John and Owen do The Shot to remove the grenade but Owen is injured fatally. Owen dies satisfied of fulfilling God’s wish.
The fact that they had to perform The Shot, is the very backbone of this book- the leading mentality that runs Owen’s life. That everything is there for a reason and that he has a calling, and everything no matter how meaningless is angelic and sacred to the human experience. At the same time though, wouldn’t Owen if he didn’t get so obsessed with Vietnam be there for John?
It’s interesting to reflect upon whether or not this fate was bestowed upon him, or if he chased it to please himself. So Owen died satisfied, but I closed the book not entirely convinced.