Personal Best: A Prayer for Owen Meany

"A Prayer for Owen Meany" by John Irving

Published September 30, 1996 12:43PM (EDT)

i am, by my nature, a polydenominational person. I drop into all churches, read any spiritual text that falls into my hands, and at various times have found just about every religious tradition "closer to the truth." In this society we have made it so incredibly difficult to have a relationship with God that doesn't somehow turn into a relationship between a bad child and a stern parent, or a slow child and a demanding parent, or a slacking, brutish teenager and an anxious parent, that most people have given up trying to have any kind of serious religious life.

Every once in a while, though, a work of art will make you feel like it would be fun to swizzle about in one or many of the great pools of faith. "Dead Man Walking" is a good example -- who wouldn't want to be the nun responsible for the vigorous redemption of scumbag Sean Penn? The movie made Christianity so toothsome, like sliding Jesus into a new Armani suit and a sexy haircut. "Owen Meany" makes spirituality similarly attractive -- and it's much easier to read than a tract by Meister Eckhardt or Thomas Aquinas.

As far as written fiction goes, I have two different categories. One is This Person Can Really Write His/Her Ass Off -- i.e. Cormac McCarthy (all modern American work whimpers off and goes limp when faced with the devastating glory of "Blood Meridian") or Ken Kesey ("Sometimes A Great Notion" being a foremost example of the great contributions LSD made to serious literature) or any of the Southern monsters (McCullers, O'Connor, Tennessee Williams and all those whose works lurk in the lobby of the Emotionally Abused Women's Shelter).

The other category is This Speaks To Me Personally, which may include stuff that isn't as cool to admit you love in snobbish literary circles, but feels really good. Two of these spring out of the woodwork immediately: "A Confederacy of Dunces" by the late John Kennedy Toole, which I assume that all good humans have read by now and is a work of genius, and "A Prayer for Owen Meany" by John Irving, which isn't a work of genius but was pretty much the first book ever to make me cry. It says something, although I'm not sure what, that I find one of the most moving passages in literature the scene in which a man voluntarily removes his index finger with a granite saw.

Owen Meany is simply a great and luminous character, a man whom you wish you knew and hung out with, and the novel is driven by the merits of his palpable soul. This is a book about the interconnectedness of things and the importance of seemingly meaningless details and the yielding nature of true friendship, and how everything plays a part in recognizing a larger force and ultimate plan. There are always pitfalls and disasters, but these too play a part in the eventual logic of events. I think this is what all people want from faith -- a feeling that the seemingly senseless indignities of life ultimately serve the higher purpose of educating the soul. Like life, nothing in this book makes any particular sense until later in the book when it all falls gracefully together into a whole that means more than the sum of its parts.

"Owen Meany" is John Irving's heroic stab at connecting all of the metaphysical dots. He wants to SAY something, he wants to infuse his readers with a sense of divine possibility, and he wants to make a bunch of subjective political insights and make us laugh and cry all at the same time, and I appreciate it, even if I don't necessarily regard it as a Great Work of Art. A lot of the book falls prey to Irvingisms: he digs his own pits -- incest, New Hampshire, freak accidents and amputations, untimely death, ironic sexual shame -- and falls into them in nearly every book. That doesn't matter: any Irving fan reads his books for precisely these flavors.
In "Owen Meany" the author is dealing with a new and more personal theme. This book is the closest we will ever get to the John Irving who is striving to be "good" in the world; it's a self-portrait, in a way, of the person he wants to be. What makes it touching is that it's a really brave and generous attempt, by Irving the Celebrated Pop Author, to reveal his heart.

Despite being chosen by God, Owen Meany is still totally human -- he smokes, he drinks beer, he has turbulent relationships, he's grouchy and sarcastic. In short, he's just like us, a symbol of the Godliness in every man that we may or may not be concerned with. This book is like an American quilt in which faith is assembled from things familiar and tangible -- basic morality, a sense of predestination, faith in faith. It gives the heart a place to roll up safely and relax.
It's this optimism about life that Irving wants to give us with this book. It's like a crayon Valentine, a hopeful "Get Well Soon" card given to a jaded society by a naive kid whose optimism and hope is the power it needs to heal itself. "Owen Meany" is as sappy as a book can get without having a title like "Coddled By The Light" or "Sauntering Towards the Light" or "Picking Posies in the Fields of the Light," but it's never nauseating or treacly or overly wholesome. It's a nice good fun read, like a quiet vacation. Irving isn't wrangling us with extremes, here -- he gives us a break. You've been beat up enough, he says. I'll do the work for you this time. The result is merciful, healthy, warm and gladdening.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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