by John Irving
Hardcover, 543 pg.
William Morrow & Co., 1989
Read: March 4 – 10, 2016
[Marilyn Monroe] was just like our whole country — not quite young anymore, but not old either; a little breathless, very beautiful, maybe a little stupid, maybe a lot smarter than she seemed, and she was looking for something . . . She was never quite happy, she was always a little overweight. She was just like our whole country.
I’m not sure why I picked that quotation from this book, but there’s something that appealed to me about it (even if I don’t necessarily agree). You’ll note that there are both upper and lower case letters there — Owen Meany’s dialogue is always given to us in all caps. Which is annoying (it’s supposed to be), and difficult to read in extended speeches (Owen’s voice is hard to listen to), and makes you wish he’d shut up (duplicating the experience of most people who heard him).
A medical explanation for this is given, eventually. But the only explanation that Owen needs is that God gave him his voice. The same for his diminutive stature (about 5′ 0″ as an adult) — God made him that way, for His own reason.
But I’m getting ahead of myself — John Irving’s probably best known for The World According to Garp, which was one of the bigger disappointments of my college reading, so I wasn’t really looking forward to spending more time with him. You add in the fact that this is a 500+ page book with only nine chapters, and it’s downright intimidating. I’m not going to say that you shouldn’t be intimidated and that it’s a pretty easy read — it’s a challenge, it’s frequently a slog — but in the end, it’s rewarding.
When the book starts, Johnny Wheelwright (the narrator) doesn’t seem particularly fond of Owen Meany — in fact, you get the impression that he’s just one of those kids he happens to know, and he’s not that happy about it. But before long, it’s clear that he and Owen are really close — even though (because?) Owen’s responsible for the greatest tragedy of Johnny’s childhood.
John finds himself as an observer to Owen’s life, as his defender, his advocate, his way to the greater world. While Owen is constantly trying to help his friend — help him to achieve, help him to think, help him to believe. It’s a great friendship — and without the other, each was diminished. Owen less so, but in important ways.
The narrative is rambling — John starts to tell us about something, the plot moves forward a bit, but then he goes back in history to give context. Sometimes weeks, sometimes years and far more detail than you think is necessary. Eventually, you see that this is sort of the approach that the overall narrative is taking — John has something he needs to tell the reader, but he doesn’t want to. So he tells you many other things, anecdotes, vignettes, details you don’t need — anything to delay what he wants to say. He does get to it. And by that time, you’re not sure you want him to.
The story is told from the perspective of forty-something John, now a teacher at a Private School in Toronto — he spends his days reading the news about the United States, and ranting (or trying not to) to anyone near him about what President Reagan is doing. I’m not sure why we spend so much time dwelling on him in the present, we don’t need it — it adds almost nothing to the narrative. If anything, I think it might lessen the impact of the rest. The adult John telling the story about his childhood, about Owen, about their growing up together, and so on is essential — we need his perspective, his distance. What we don’t need is to hear John’s rants about Reagan, the poor reading/study habits of teenage girls.
I’m not sure that I get a whole lot of understanding of New Hampshire from this book — Owen’s family working in the granite industry doesn’t tell us much, New Hampshire is The Granite State — everyone who survived 4th grade knows that. If anything, Irving was wanting to talk about America — as an ideal, and as something that falls short of that ideal. Monroe was one example, John Kennedy’s moral failings another, Vietnam a recurring theme, and, of course, the Iran-Contra Scandal. Each of these, as either a representative individual, or representative act, demonstrates how far (in John’s/Owen’s view, at least) the United States has fallen short of the ideals it should strive for — if not achieve.
Ultimately, when I enjoyed this book, it felt like it was in spite of what I was reading. But I laughed, I cared, I kept reading — and then when I was finished, I appreciated the work as a whole, and felt a lot more affection for it than I expected. It’s hard to explain, but I liked this one and heartily recommend it.