Published in 1989, A Prayer for Owen Meany is John Irving's seventh novel; it is also one of his most popular works. After its publication, it quickly became Irving's best-selling novel since his immensely popular work The World According to Garp came out in 1978. It is now not only a staple on high school reading lists, but it is also a novel that people love to read for the mere fact that it is so engaging and entertaining. It was even adapted (very loosely, however) for the 1998 film Simon Birch starring Ashley Judd and Jim Carrey. A huge number of cultural and literary references run throughout the text, but the novel was most clearly influenced by The Tin Drum by Günter Grass and the works of Charles Dickens.
Like most of the novels that Irving has penned throughout his career, A Prayer for Owen Meany takes place in New England – the setting he creates makes you want to run out, put on a flannel shirt, and start drinking some apple cider. Owen Meany is set in the fictional town of Gravesend, New Hampshire, which is based on the real town of Exeter where Irving himself grew up. The novel follows the story of two boys: our narrator, John Wheelwright, and his best friend, Owen Meany, an unusual-looking boy with a voice that could give you goose bumps (and not in a good way). We watch the story unfold at two distinct periods in John's life: the first period covers his boyhood and adolescence, starting in 1948 when he is six years old and ending in July of 1968. The second period takes place in 1987 when John is 45 and living by himself in Toronto, Canada. Time isn't linear in Owen Meany; instead, John's narration goes back and forth in time, intertwining the events of his childhood with his observations from middle age.
The central storyline kicks into gear in 1953 when the boys are eleven years old. Owen, who is no great athlete, is called up to bat when his baseball coach has a "what the heck" moment – their team is bound to lose, so he figures Owen should have a chance to play. Bad idea. Owen ends up hitting a foul ball that kills Johnny's mother. From there, we learn that Owen thinks that the event was no accident; he's convinced that he was carrying out the destiny ordained by God. He sees himself as "God's Instrument," and we spend the duration of the novel piecing together what Owen thinks this destiny of his is. This journey is filled with explorations of Owen's religious belief, as well as John's progression from not feeling any particular religious belief to becoming what he considers to be a "true believer."
Beyond what seems to be a fantastic tale in many respects, Owen Meany also pushes us to look at events in American and world history through a more critical lens. As John narrates Owen's story, he infuses his narrative with sharp criticisms of the Vietnam War, the Iran-Contra affair, and American politics and policy in general. Don't let that turn you off, though, if you're not a history buff; at its heart, A Prayer for Owen Meany is a novel about family, friendship, and the quest to find some kind of answer when we feel like things around us are not going the way we'd like them to.
OK, we'll be up front about it. There is a lot about A Prayer for Owen Meany that can feel sort of hard to relate to. First of all, Owen is totally over-the-top. There isn't just one thing that's weird about Owen. He's sort of like a living, breathing cartoon – he's a tiny, floppy-eared kid who's chock-full of religious belief and moral principles who loves Liberace, baseball cards, and his best friend's mom. Oh, yeah, and he talks like he's shouting out of his nose. Don't even get us started on what happens in the book. It's like your favorite sitcom exploded all over the lovechild of the Lifetime Movie of the Week and a Televangelist special, resulting in a comic tragedy that's full of questions about God. What do I do with this? you ask.
Well, sure, A Prayer for Owen Meany isn't always the most realistic novel you've ever read, but that doesn't mean that there aren't aspects of it that all of us can relate to. When you look past the crazy characters, bizarre events, and unbelievable coincidences, you end up with a really poignant and thoughtful look at the incredibly strong friendship between two boys in the process of growing up. Deep down, Owen and Johnny are like most of us: they may not be the coolest kids in school, but they have each other. They may face adversity, but they find strength in their friendship. They learn together, and they learn from each other. The constantly reflect on the things they've done and the things they can't control. They worry about the future. They worry about themselves. They worry about each other. Doesn't that sound kind of like your relationship with your best friend?
Oh, and back to that "crazy characters, bizarre events, and unbelievable coincidences" thing – trust us, what happens in this book should be enough to get you hooked. Just saying.