A fragmented response to John Irving's 1989 novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, by Theo Macdonald
In April I reread John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989). The narrator is the title hero’s best friend Johnny Wheelwright, a middle-aged American living in Toronto in 1987. Johnny works at a prestigious girls’ school, Bishop Strachan, teaching Tess of the d’Urbervilles to Ontario’s future leaders. The novel is a bildungsroman set between Vietnam-era New Hampshire and 1980s Toronto. The meat of the book is Johnny’s reflections on his relationship with Owen Meany, a precocious iconoclast born knowing he is destined to be an instrument of God’s will. This inevitable tragedy burns an ominous note throughout. Owen’s prescience has a long tail. A Prayer for Owen Meany examines faith amidst geopolitical crises.
A Prayer for Owen Meany is a technical
challenge for John Irving. It is a processing of influence, from the overt Dickensian themes to the inert sub-narratives snatched from pre-industrial Europe. Owen and Johnny come from disparate environments. Johnny’s family arrived on the Mayflower. His grandmother is the town’s resident aristocrat. Owen’s uneducated family are working class and traumatised.
A sentimental model would have Owen’s disabilities and poverty make him a figure of mawkish sympathy. Irving, however, defines Owen by his
forthrightness. Johnny should be a spoon- licking heel, but instead he is cautious, albeit naïve. Irving thus bypasses the characters’ immediate class positions to focus on other concerns. The application of faith levels the playing field. This is a difficult theme to grasp in what is, nonetheless, a secular fiction.
A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of three books I reread in the past year. The other two are
Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, and Werner Herzog’s Conquest of the
Useless. All three twist on the bond between tranquillity and turmoil. Faith is the intersection. In Owen Meany, it is the difficulty of religious faith. In Aunt Julia, it is faith in romance. For Herzog, it is faith in poetry. Rereading can be better than reading. Rereading prioritises attention over novelty. Reading is like viewing a de Chirico painting through a pinhole. By the conclusion, when the complete structure is revealed, most readers are ready to move on to the next novel. Rereading is getting to spend the same time with the revealed painting. You have the knowledge of how it fits together, and can enjoy the harmony of di Chirico’s palette, the humour of his motifs, and the strength in each brushstroke. Children are no good at trivial pursuit because knowledge is cumulative. Rereading produces a new text each time.
I first read A Prayer for Owen Meany when I was fourteen. I was studying at a Catholic boys’ school in Wellington. I reread the novel at twenty-five. Now I live in Toronto, an hour’s walk from the suburb Johnny Wheelwright adopts as home. Colleagues criticise Johnny for never leaving this wealthy neighbourhood. He lives in Forest Hill, teaches in Forest Hill, and walks his dog around Forest Hill. I walked to Forest Hill the same day Larry Kramer died. My girlfriend and I live in Bloorcourt village, a neighbourhood for elderly Portuguese couples and budding socialists. The default structure is a two-story red brick villa. In Forest Hill the houses are bigger. They squat above the sidewalk like beige hens protecting old money eggs. The streets are wide, lined with North American heritage. A strip of shops fences the suburb’s west edge. Bronze lions guard mansions built when servant’s quarters were assumed. A catalogue of clashing architectural moments. Cobblestones and wrought iron, stucco and concrete, kitsch and classicism. A runner passed us several times. She had private school abs. Of the moneyed Suburbs I have visited in Toronto, Forest Hill is the most hostile. Charles Montgomery Kane could live here. It is telling that Irving housed Johnny Wheelwright in this land of petty splendour.
Johnny Wheelwright is away from home during a crisis. Johnny’s crisis is the Reagan
administration’s Cold War assault on global politics. The novel hones in on Johnny’s fixation with American intervention in Asia and the Middle East, in the shadows of Vietnam. The current crisis, the Coronavirus pandemic, has a different timbre. Still, it distances me from my neighbours. This distance grants me a certain calm. I know my family and friends are safe. One of the great benefits of living in a foreign country is anonymity. You leave your life behind. Become less the centre of things. This solipsistic aspiration is the weightlessness of having no history. Time spent overseas is time spent alone.
I pictured Grace Church On-The-Hill as a clapboard chapel out of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I imagined it meek, approachable, concerned. It is not. It is grandiose. Swollen like Bishop
Strachan, the school across the road. These two poles, work and religion, define Johnny’s life in Toronto. A converted Anglican, he consults the clergy many times a week. He brings his suffering to the alter with an intimacy wholly incompatible with the castle looming overhead. Predestination is essential to Johnny’s shifting denomination. Through Owen’s story, Irving flexes the muscle of the church. He kicks the tires of Catholicism, Episcopalism, Anglicanism, Baptism, even Existentialism. Johnny stresses to his students that the Existentialists aren’t right just because they are better writers. The incompatibility of omniscience and free will is, to Irving, the great religious paradox. Johnny and Owen have their doubts allayed through visions of angels. Doubt survives because witnessing the impossible does not resolve predetermination.
If predetermination has a secular equivalent, it is the problem of
diagnosis. I gave my father A Prayer for Owen Meany after he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). I didn’t draw a thematic link at the time. My father died in 2017. At diagnosis he was given three years to live. As a child, Owen Meany dreams the exact date he will die. The relationship is clear in the rereading. These two promises are not so different. Diagnosis produces a ripple of doubt. What is this cruelty? Like a religious miracle, the rare case of one surviving beyond their diagnosis can diminish doubt, but it cannot vanquish it entirely. It is severely ironic that the most public image of ALS, Stephen Hawking, lived such an asymptomatic experience of the condition. Like God, illness is all around us. It sets a time on our actions. In his last six months my father lacked the muscle to turn a page.
Bishop Strachan is another castle. The teachers park their cars under the soccer field. Their labour is hidden. It is ephemeral. The castle is haunted. Lying to the south of Forest Hill is St Claire Reservoir. The reservoir is also hidden. A park obscures the storage facility that feeds Toronto’s perpetual growth. Johnny leaves three traumas in New Hampshire: The loss of his mother, the loss of Owen, and the loss of his finger. The latter is how he avoids being enlisted to fight in Vietnam. It is at Owen’s insistence. John is acted upon. Moving to Canada is the sole assertion within a life of passivity. In John Irving’s oeuvre, violence provokes growth. Interpersonal tensions boil over in surprising moments of bloodshed. This is all part of the author’s ongoing fascination with all that is coded as masculine. Irving conceived Owen Meany through the Vietnam War, and this war is intrinsic to the novel’s conclusion. If Owen’s small death is a corollary to the Vietnam war, perhaps my father’s small illness is akin to the ravages of Coronavirus. As in Shakespearean tragedy, this pandemic is the environment revolting against mankind.
- Theo Macdonald, 2020