The Message Is the Message

  • A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY by John Irving; Morrow; 543 pages; $19.95

    Accidents usually accelerate John Irving's antic plots and keep his readers tuned for what happens next. A Prayer for Owen Meany takes a somewhat different approach. Framed by the myth of victim as redeemer, the book removes guesswork without reducing expectations. One knows going in that the mischievous author is staging a kind of "Gospel According to Charlie Brown." But anyone familiar with Irving's mastery of narrative technique, his dark humor and moral resolve also knows his fiction is cute like a fox.

    Irving's inventive stamina and virtuosity scarcely disguise his indignation about the ways of the world, particularly about the manner in which U.S. foreign policy has been conducted in the past 25 years. The period includes John F. Kennedy's military intervention in Viet Nam and Ronald Reagan's resurrection of 19th century jingoism over Central America.

    Through the miracle of literary hindsight, the mess of two decades is foreseen by a sawed-off Christly caricature, Owen Meany, a New Hampshire granite quarrier's son who speaks in capital letters and believes the sacrificial arc of his life has been plotted by God. The novel's narrator is John Wheelwright, Meany's prep-school mate and eventually his leading apostle.

    As in hagiographies and heroic tales, faith is tested by adversity. Wheelwright's challenge is vintage Irving, an event that is simultaneously horrifying and absurdly funny. It occurs during a Little League game in the summer of 1953 when Meany, in the lineup because his diminutive strike zone draws walks, swings away. He connects for a mighty foul ball that shoots toward the stands and fatally strikes Wheelwright's mother on the head. The game is suspended along with, it is hoped, the reader's disbelief.

    Wheelwright recalls this and subsequent apocalypses from his home in Toronto, where he has lived as an expatriate for 20 years. Assimilation is difficult; Canada is under the perpetual influence of a hot-air mass pumped in by media from the south, and Wheelwright is a U.S. news junkie. As one character puts it, "Television gives good disaster."

    Irving does not let his narrator have the liveliest lines. Wheelwright is passive by design. The vigorous Puritan tradition of his ancestors has become thin and unsteady. His role is to record the actions of others and canonize his childhood friend.

    Despite its theological proppings, A Prayer for Owen Meany is a fable of political predestination. As usual, Irving delivers a boisterous cast, a spirited story line and a quality of prose that is frequently underestimated, even by his admirers. On the other hand, the novel invites trespass by symbol hunters. One can easily imagine college sophomores arguing over the meaning of a stuffed armadillo that has had its claws removed, or the significance of Wheelwright's carrying his small friend on his shoulders to slam-dunk a basketball. For graduate students there is the fact that Meany shares more than initials with Oskar Matzerath, the runt hero of Gunter Grass's masterpiece, The Tin Drum.

    To get lost in critical rummage would be to miss the point. Irving's litany of error and folly may strike some as too righteous; but it is effective. His glaring capital letters aside, Meany reminds us that, after the nostrums of the Great Communicator, news should be more than what we did not know yesterday and are likely to forget tomorrow.