Is this a parody, an allegory or perhaps even a serious book about religion and faith?
“A prayer…” is certainly all of that, plus the unforgettable character who gives the title to the book.
The story pivots around a key milestone in the life of two friends, Owen Meany and John Wheelwright. While playing a baseball game, Owen unfortunately hits John’s mother with a ball, killing her on the spot. But there comes one of Irving’s most disconcerting sentences in the novel, when Owen says that “I am god’s instrument”. What follows is a story full of religion, politics and weird small town characters.
The story is narrated by John Wheelwright, who does very little other than to admire his friend Owen, silently lust for his cousin Hester and then leave the US for Canada where he becomes an anti US Canadian citizen.
But the real pleasure in this book is in trying to read between the lines, in interpreting what is behind the characters.
For instance, is Owen Meany a metaphor for the US? Owen is religious, idealistic, self-assured, convinced of his “manifest destiny” to a degree that feels not quite right. He is also noble, honest, brave, intelligent and perceived as a leader, all of that despite being very short and in possession of a voice which bewilders everyone.
Is John’s mother, and her death, an allegory for a pure, “more authentic US”, just at a time (the late 50’s) when that country was about to lose its virginity in Vietnam? Vietnam plays a key role in the story. It is obviously one of the reasons why John Wheelwright despises his native country, although John’s anti-americanism feels somewhat too simple.
I found some passages in the book quite heavy going, particularly the nativity play at John’s hometown theatre when he was a kid. But Owen’s relentless search for his destiny has a magic quality that makes this novel absorbing, particularly its second half.