The Books: “A Prayer for Owen Meany” (John Irving)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

OwenMeanyPrayer.jpgExcerpt from A Prayer for Owen Meany – by John Irving

I’ve written quite a bit about my reading of this book. So far, I’ve only read it once – I think the whole bursting-into-sobs-at-the-last-sentence thing made me hesitant to pick it up again. My first reading of the book was so perfect, so utterly engrossing … that it almost makes me nervous to re-visit it. I remember sitting on the beach with my boyfriend, in our beach chairs, both of us reading it – neck and neck. He was a bit ahead of me – and his guffaws of laughter were music to my ears. We were reading the Christmas pageant scene, which is one of the funniest pieces of writing I have ever read. I read it, and snorted and howled with laughter. This is so rare – how often does a book make you do that??

Owen Meany has an almost mathematical structure to it – with things dovetailing perfectly, themes looping back in … clues dropped on page 1 woven in to the picture on page 297 – That was a criticism of the book, I recall: that it was TOO neat. I can see that, or at least – I can see where a criticism like that is coming from. It seems to me, though, that that very “neatness” goes along with the themes of the book, and its overriding view of the world: that things make sense, that there is a cosmic meaning to the universe, that sometimes, on this earth, we meet someone who is an instrument of God. Johnny Wheelwright believes that Owen Meany was an instrument of God – and Owen believes that himself. The opening paragraph (again, Irving opens his books like nobody else) has Johnny stating: “It is Owen who made me a believer.” So we know, from the getgo, that this is going to be a pretty intense journey. Owen Meany is a fantastic character – what a creation! The shortness, the ashy colored skin – and the voice. I don’t know about you, but I have his voice in my head … I’m sure other readers imagine it differently – but we all MUST imagine something. Irving tells us just enough to get our imaginations going … and then the rest is up to us. Fantastic.

The book has such a wide span – and it’s been so long since I read it. But I remember the pageant, and I remember Johnny’s mother. I remember Owen being tormented when the Sunday School teacher was out of the room. I remember the ending, boy oh boy. I remember Johnny’s present-day narration – where we begin to realize things about him – that he lives in Canada, that he’s a minister … and other things which I won’t give away. But the present-day narration comes at intervals, so it’s not a full picture right away. We wonder: what happened to Johnny? And … what happened to Owen? Where is Owen now? God. What a book.

I remember Mitchell reading the book around the same time as I did. We were talking about it feverishly – and one of the things we both looooved about the book is Johnny’s cousins: Noah, Simon, and Hester (nickname: Hester the Molester). And I still remember something Mitchell said to me, and as a person with about 50 cousins all together, I think he’s so right: “John Irving just nails that whole cousin dynamic.” It’s very specific – and if you either have no cousins, or if you have cousins you never see and do not know … then you might not realize just how specific Irving is, and how right ON he is with that very particular kind of familial relationship. I would get so excited when I was going to see my cousins … and then when we were in each other’s presence – we would have so much fun that it was almost like we were GORGING on fun. Desperate fun. SO MUCH FUN. And then – when it was time to go … there was almost a swooning feeling of sadness, that the fun had to end. Someone usually cried. It was like we were dragged away from one another, sobbing. This is very particular to a COUSIN relationship. The fun you have with your cousins, as a kid, is so ferocious that someone usually got hurt. Because it’s not like a friend from school you see all the time – so you have to squeeze in as much fun as you possibly can! There’s something almost unpleasant about it. I am laughing out loud. Anyway, John Irving just “gets” that … I’ve never read a better and more apt description of feverish cousin relationships than in Owen Meany – and that’s going to be my excerpt from this book. Even though Owen Meany himself doesn’t make an appearance here. His cousins are vaguely terrifying, and totally awesome.

Excerpt from A Prayer for Owen Meany – by John Irving

I would never describe my cousins as bullies; they were good-natured, rambunctious roughnecks and daredevils who genuinely wanted me to have fun – but fun in the north country was not what I was used to in my life with the women at 80 Front Street, Gravesend. I did not wrestle with my grandmother or box with Lydia, not even when she had both her legs. I did play croquet with my mother, but croquet is not a contact sport. And given that my best friend was Owen Meany, I was not inclined to much in the way of athletic roughhousing.

My mother loved her sister and brother-in-law; they always made her feel special and welcome – they certainly made me feel that way – and my mother doubtless appreciated a little time away from my grandmother’s imperious wisdom.

Grandmother would come to Sawyer Depot for a few days at Christmas, and she would make a grand appearance for one weekend every summer, but the north country was not to Grandmother’s liking. And although Grandmother was perfectly tolerant of my solitary disruption of the adult life at 80 Front Street – and even moderately tolerant of the games I would play in that old house with Owen – she had scant patience for the disruption caused in any house by all her grandchildren. For Thanksgiving, the Eastmans came to 80 Front Street, a disturbance that my grandmother referred to in terms of “the casualties” for several months after their visit.

My cousins were active, combative athletes – my grandmother called them “the warriors” – and I lived a different life whenever I was with them. I was both crazy about them and terrified of them; I couldn’t contain my excitement as the time to see them drew near, but after several days, I couldn’t wait to get away from them – I missed the peace of my private games, and I missed Owen Meany; I even missed Grandmother’s constant but consistent criticism.

My cousins – Noah, Simon, and Hester (in order of their ages) – were all older than I: Hester was older by less than a year, although she would always be bigger; Simon was older by two years; Noah, by three. Those are not great differences in age, to be sure, but they were great enough in all those years before I was a teenager – when each of my cousins was better than I was, at everything.

Since they grew up in the north country, they were fabulous skiers. I was, at best, a cautious skier, modeling my slow, wide turns on my mother’s graceful but undaring stem Christie – she was a pretty skier of intermediate ability who was consistently in control; she did not think that the essence of the sport was speed, nor did she fight the mountain. My cousins raced each other down the slopes, cutting each other off, knocking each other down – and rarely restraining their routes of descent to the marked trails. They would lead me into the deep, unmanageable powder snow in the woods, and in my efforts to keep up with them, I would abandon the controlled, conservative skiing that my mother had taught me and end up straddling trees, embracing snow fences, losing my goggles in icy streams.

My cousins were sincere in their efforts to teach me to keep my skis parallel – and to hop on my skis – but a school-vacation skier is never the equal to a north-country native. They set such standards for recklessness that, eventually, I could no longer have fun skiing with my mother. I felt guilty that I made her ski alone; but my mother was rarely left alone for long. By the end of the day, some man – a would-be ski instructor, if not an actual ski instructor – would be coaching her at her side.

What I remember of skiing with my cousins is long, humiliating and hurtling falls, follwowed by my cousins retrieving my ski poles, my mittens, and my hat – from which I became inevitably separated.

“Are you all right?” my eldest cousin, Noah, would ask me. “That looked rather harsh.”

“That looked neat!” my cousin Simon would say; Simon loved to fall – he skied to crash.

“You keep doing that, you’ll make yourself sterile,” said my cousin Hester, to whom every event of our shared childhood was either sexually exhilarating or sexually damaging.

In the summers, we went waterskiing on Loveless Lake, where the Eastmans kept a boathouse, the second floor of which was remodeled to resemble an English pub – Uncle Alfred was admiring of the English. My mother and Aunt Martha would go sailing, but Uncle Alfred drove the powerboat wildly and fast, a beer in his free hand. Because he did not water-ski himself, Uncle Alfred thought that the responsibility of the boat’s driver was to make the skier’s ride as harrowing as possible. He would double back in the middle of a turn so that the rope would go slack, or you could even catch up to the rope and ski over it. He drove a murderous figure 8; he appeared to relish surprising you, by putting you directly in the path of an oncoming boat or of another surprised water-skier on the busy lake. Regardless of the cause of your fall, Uncle Alfred took credit for it. When anyone racing behind the boat would send up a fabulous spray, skimming lengthwise across the water, skis ripped off, head under one second, up the next, and then under again – Uncle Alfred would shout, “Bingo!”

I am living proof that the waters of Loveless Lake are potable because I swallowed half the lake every summer while waterskiing with my cousins. Once I struck the surface of the lake with such force that my right eyelid was rolled up into my head in a funny way. My cousin Simon told me I had lost my eyelid – and my cousin Hester added that the lost eyelid would lead to blindness. But Uncle Alfred managed to locate the missing eyelid, after a few anxious minutes.

Indoor life with my cousins was no less vigorous. The savagery of pillow-fighting would leave me breathless, and there was a game that involved Noah and Simon tying me up and stuffing me in Hester’s laundry hamper, where Hester would always discover me; before she’d untie me, she’d accuse me of sniffing her underwear. I know that Hester especially looked forward to my visits because she suffered from being the constant inferior to her brothers – not that they abused her, or even teased her. Considering that they were boys, and older, and she was a girl, and younger, I thought they treated her splendidly, but every activity my cousins engaged in was competitive, and it clearly irked Heater to lose. Naturally, her brothers could “best” her at everything. How she must have enjoyed having me around, for she could “best” me at anything – even, when we went to the Eastman lumberyard and the sawmill, at log-rolling. There was also a game that involved taking possession of a sawdust pile – those piles were often twenty or thirty feet high, and the sawdust nearer the bottom, in contact with the ground, was often frozen or at least hardened to a crusty consistency. The object was to be king of the mountain, to hurl all comers off the top of the pile – or to bury one’s attackers in the sawdust.

The worst part about being buried in the pile – up to your chin – was that the lumberyard dog, the Eastmans’ slobbering boxer, a mindlessly friendly beast with halitosis vile enough to give you visions of corpses uprooted from their graves … this dog with the mouth of death was then summoned to lick your face. And with the sawdust packed all around you – as armless as Watahantowet’s totem – you were powerless to fend the dog off.

But I loved being with my cousins; they were so vastly stimulating that I could rarely sleep in their house and would lie awake all night, waiting for them to pounce on me, or for them to let Firewater, the boxer, into my room, where he would lick me to death; or I would just lie awake imagining what exhausting contests I would encounter the next day.

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10 Responses to The Books: “A Prayer for Owen Meany” (John Irving)

  1. David says:

    Sometimes it feels like John Irving is writing your life. And personally, I love all the characters, especially the protagonist. My character’s pretty interesting too. The Mitchell character ranks up there with Miss Havisham in terms of literary genius.

  2. Paul says:

    This reminded me of how Owen always wanted to go up and see the cousins – and John was always a little afraid Owen getting hurt or something. But when Owen finally ends up meeting the cousins, he ends up dominating them all with his force of personality! Ironic.

    One thing that always made me a bit sad about the book was where John ended up. Like he was just living the shadow of a life. I felt that Owen kind of co-opted all of his decisions and when Owen was gone, John lost his rudder. In a twisted way, being called up to Vietnam might have been good for John – at least he would have had to make his own decisions about whether to go. But Owen decided to make that decision for him because he felt he could handle Vietnam but John couldn’t. I liked the character of Owen in general, but his need to control everything was damaging in many ways..

  3. red says:

    Right – like Owen, despite his size, is an alpha dog! Johnny didn’t have a chance. So the book has all this stuff to say about free will, destiny, fate, all those religious themes … What is free will? The character of Johnny definitely made me sad. Like something was burned out of him way back then – something he can never get back.

  4. Kate says:

    Also, best first sentence of a book in the world. Seriously. “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice. . .”

  5. red says:

    Speaking of “wrecked”, Kate – I finished The Road last night. I am wrecked forever.

    Great great to talk to you last night – and have a wonderful Thanksgiving! Safe travels!

  6. Brendan says:

    Having just re-read ‘Owen Meany’ I am so psyched that you’ve reached it! The strange thing about re-reading it for me was that I’d actually FORGOTTEN how the book ended. Don’t ask me how, seeing as it is cataclysmic and pre-ordained, but I did. All I remembered was laughing everytime Owen spoke.

    And that is what is so amazing about Irving…he ‘dooms’ us to remember as well.

  7. red says:

    Bren – I know, seeing the all-caps way Owen speaks – it just makes his dialogue so funny.

    “I NEED TO ESCAPE THE CATHOLICS.” he says in the first chapter. hahahaha

    I do remember the ending itself – but what I can’t remember is how exactly they get there! I should re-read it. Just flipping thru it this morning was a blast.

  8. just1beth says:

    Ok- I have GOT to read this book!! Why have I not read this book?? The part about the folded eyelid just had me guffawing!!! (And yes, I am home on a school day- Ceileidh has an orthodontist appt in a few minutes….)

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