Years ago, Stan Freberg used to do a bit on radio about how in one specific way that medium was superior to television and movies; he would use sound and clever shifts of context showing how the radio could rely on the audience’s powers of imagination to produce preposterous effects that could never be duplicated on television or film. I am reminded of this, reading John Irving’s new novel, because much of what happens in it is quite preposterous and because Irving makes me believe it anyway, as if I had been sitting in a room listening to an adventure on the radio.
The speaker in “A Prayer for Owen Meany” is a middle-aged virgin named John Wheelwright, who describes himself as being “doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice--not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God: I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” Wheelwright never explains quite why he became Owen Meany’s best friend, and much of what he does tell us about him strains the limits of plausibility: For instance, Owen at 11 years old is so small that other children his age can easily lift him and “pass him back and forth, overhead.” We are told that this is accomplished by both boys and girls and that the game is to do so while remaining seated. “Someone would get up, seize Owen, sit back down with him, pass him to the next person, who would pass him on, and so forth. Everyone could lift up Owen.”
A little later, we learn that this tiny person manages to hit a baseball in a Little League game with enough force to kill John Wheelwright’s mother, who is described as standing nearer to third base than home plate. Now, anyone who has ever held a baseball or thrown one knows that a child so small that he can be held overhead from a sitting position by other children, could not hit a baseball with enough velocity to do the damage that Owen Meany’s batted ball does, even if it hits the victim on the temple: The ball, hard as it is, is too light to cause anything but a little bump at that distance, even if it is hit on the fat part of the bat. If Bob Feller pitches it, and Ted Williams hits it, it could kill someone standing at third base. Yet the whole novel is predicated on that fateful batted ball, and everything else about the character of Owen Meany comes from this one outlandish incident.
We read on because something in the urgency of John Wheelwright’s voice compels us to, and as the story unfolds, through the last 30 years of America’s complicated and troubled history, a pattern emerges, a sense of some impending revelation grows.
On the way, of course, even with the sonorous undertones of the prose, there’s plenty of Irving’s slapstick comedy--the action taking place at a New Hampshire prep school called Gravesend Academy. We witness a hilariously botched Christmas pageant--which also provides certain clues as to the novel’s real subject. And, as is typical of Irving, there’s a large cast of quirky, and sometimes absurd characters engaged in several different mysteries, concerning Wheelwright, his dead mother, and Owen Meany.
Wheelwright is in search of his father’s identity, and in a way is also on a quest to find out what sort of person his mother really was; Owen Meany is vouchsafed a vision while playing the Ghost of the Future in the Christmas Eve performance of “A Christmas Carol” by the Gravesend Academy Players, and John Wheelwright must also try to solve the mystery of what that vision was.
Through it all, Owen Meany progresses toward some dreamed of moment, which is revealed in hints and clues and faint suggestions, and which gradually achieves the force and inevitability of the fated moment in Greek tragedy. The twists of plot, the coincidences, the accidents along the way, are Dickensian in scope, and because Irving is a novelist whose models are the great practitioners of the novel in the 19th Century, this big book seems quite like his others: roomy, intelligent, exhilarating and darkly comic, with leisurely--almost luxurious--pacing, and a fulsome portrayal of places and people; a large canvas, and a complicated chain of uncannily connected events.
Yet while all of these things are true of “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” there is something else happening, too--something quite stunning, and very ambitious. “Many things the Gods achieve beyond our judgment,” says one of the Gravesend Academy Players during a performance of “The Medea.” “What we thought is not confirmed and what we thought not God contrives.” These lines from Euripides could very well be the central expression of “A Prayer for Owen Meany.”
It would be unfair to give away the novel’s secrets in a review, but all the preposterous elements of the story add up to a question of belief. We arrive, finally, at the most preposterous of all stories, the story of Christ. “Lord, I believe,” says the father of the possessed son in the passage from Mark, “Help thou my unbelief.”
And so while I began this review by talking about the cocky radio voice giving forth fanciful and imaginary stunts of magic and deceit, the magic of “A Prayer for Owen Meany” is that it forces us into a confrontation with our own carapaces of skepticism: We come to the realization that Irving, in this big, complicated, richly absurd creation, has given us a religious novel, a book that challenges the modern sensibility, the complacent assumptions of secularism, and the bastions of doubt. It is a brave and subtly disturbing affirmation of faith, and it is all the more remarkable for its engagement with the deepest questions, the most painful mysteries of our lives.