Why this book: I’ve heard about it for years. I had enjoyed reading Cider House Rules a few years ago and wanted to read another John Irving novel. Finally my reading group selected it for our August 2020 discussion.
Summary in 3 sentences: A coming of age novel told in the first person by Owen Meany’s best friend growing up in a small town in New Hampshire in the 50s and 60s, to include a retrospective from the narrator 20 years later. Owen Meany is a truly unique character in the following ways: very short and slight, a peculiarly high pitched, loud and obnoxiously scratchy voice, unusually intelligent, proud, opinionated, and articulate. The story follows our narrator and Owen Meany’s lives from about age 10 until they are in their early 20s, looking at their lives and what was going on in America and the world, from their perspective as small town New Englanders maturing during a period of great change and upheaval in American culture.
My impressions: Very interesting book. It meanders a bit, and John Irving often digresses into stories which add depth and perspective to his main characters, and provide humorous satire to small town New Hampshire living, but there were indeed times when I lost a bit of patience with the long digressions. But I stuck with it and I’m glad I did. And in the end, it all pretty much came together – as these sometimes seemingly pointless digressions actually play an important role in the totality of the story. So many fascinating issues get brought up in this book with multiple subplots and themes and some fun and interesting supporting characters to John Wheelwright the narrator, and Owen Meany -the two main characters of the book.
The contrast between Owen Meany and John Wheelwright the narrator is pretty significant. Owen Meany is clearly the stronger character of the two, self-aware and self confident, with a sense of purpose, direction, and a fatalistic detachment from issues big and small. Wheelwright is timid and self-conscious, and basically lets himself be led by a strong personality – which usually is Owen Meany in this book.
Some of the topics and themes of the book that I look forward to discussing in my reading group are:
Small town New England life in the 50s and 60s. Amusing but insightful look at small town living anywhere, but especially in relatively isolated parts of America during a period when there wasn’t much input from outside their world. Television was in its early days and not everyone had it. A train could get you to Boston a couple of hours away, but that was a big trip. And as in most small towns, the controversies and feuds were vicious because the stakes were so small – which church would host a community event, who would play what part in the annual Christmas pageant, etc. And then the issues of the outside world intrude to disrupt the insulated world of Gravesend, NH, in the form of the Vietnam War and the cultural disruption of the 60s.
Religion – Catholics, Episcopalians, Anglicans and their individual prejudices and idiosyncrasies are all subject to affectionate criticism and satire. Both John Wheelwright and Owen are regular church goers – a huge part of small town New England culture in that day. Owen is a “believer” with a strong faith, but not afraid to criticize mindless convention and dogma, while John is a wishy-washy, along-for-the-ride agnostic. The issue of “faith” is a constant in the book – Owen had it, most others didn’t – including the town’s religious leaders.
God, faith and fate – Owen had complete faith in God’s will and that events that happen are not random – they fulfill God’s purpose. This was THE key driver in his life, which gave him his self -confidence and sense of perspectives and purpose. Others who didn’t have it, like John Wheelwright drifted from decision to decision. It is almost unsettling how clearly Owen describes and declares his faith and his fate – which he holds on to in spite of getting no support from friends, relatives, church leaders. That said, at the end of the book, one senses that John Wheelwright’s life may have been as predetermined as Owen’s – though he didn’t have the wisdom to see it.
Counter-culture, protests and the Vietnam War – big issues for the US in the 60s and they are an important part of this book, which was published in 1989. But as I read about the craziness of the anti-war protests, and the counter-culture movement of 50 years ago, I couldn’t help but see parallels with the disruption we see in today’s protests against racism and inequality, agains white-male privilege, and how many peripheral groups are taking advantage of the chaos and unchecked passion that these often well-meaning protests enable. Then as now, young people feel compelled to get involved and take a stand against something that they see as clearly wrong, without giving careful considerations to the many nuances and challenges in forging a constructive way forward. Therefore, then as now, they are ready to take drastic and dramatic action to make their points and bring attention to their grievances – which often have negative consequences they don’t foresee. That was true in 1968 as it is in 2020. Young impassioned idealists, against the establishment – in some ways it’s almost a re-run – but today we have social media and a 24 hour news cycle fanning the flames.
Adolescent male sexuality – always a great topic for humor and satire, and the coming-of-age experiences of these two young men include a fair amount of humor. The posturing and sex-infused language of Owen’s and John’s school age buddies is always good for a laugh. This was the era I grew up in – when good girls didn’t “do it” and most guys and girls graduated from HS as virgins. Sex seemed to be a right of passage into respectability and adulthood for guys, who in a hurry to be perceived as “men” typically postured, and pretended to understand things that they were secretly scared to death of. This all seems rather quaint today, because beginning in the 70s, a much larger percentage boys and girls are sexually active in high school – for better or worse.
Nostalgia in movies and early TV. The period of this novel is the same as when I and my wife were growing up, and the movies and TV shows that Owen, John, and John’s grandmother watched were very familiar to us, and evoked a smile of familiarity – “yeah, I used to watch that when I was a kid.” There were not nearly so many choices as today, so we all grew up watching most of the same shows, but also there was no 24 hour news cycle fueling outrage, fear, and discontent.
The paranormal Owen possessed a ‘second sight” which was a subtle theme throughout the book. Owen seems to tune into his parapsychological capability regularly, but doesn’t share much of that with his best friend, or with anyone else – this was part of the mystery of Owen Meany. At the end of the book, John comes to recognize and appreciate Owen’s “gift” which he says helped him to find his own faith in God as well.
Death and Fear – hard to talk about this without doing a spoiler alert, but early on, Owen has a vision that foresees his own death, and he is absolutely convinced that the vision and what it told him were ordained by God. He completely believes in the vision and how he lives with this knowledge is an important theme of the book. He knows how much time he has, and this insight allows him to remain detached from issues, annoyances, fears and frustrations that would dramatically disrupt the self-confidence and equanimity of most of us. He does not share much of this insight with his best friend John- John is simply amazed at how Owen deals with the challenges that come his way.
My wife and I enjoyed reading this book together, and talking about it as we read it and after we had both finished it. Though I wouldn’t call this a book about religion and faith, these issues are certainly important in the lives of the main characters, and the issue of destiny is certainly a primary theme. My wife noted some of the interesting religious symbolism that I missed. This will be a fun discussion in our reading group. I recommend it – to anyone interested in a different, fun, and sometimes idiosyncratic novel – not altogether unlike it’s main character – Owen Meany.
I read all of the John Irving novels after I decided to drop out of law school and go to graduate school in 1994 or so. I was 25 and had a different perspective then. With 4000 pages of boring legal reading every week, it made Irving’s “meandering” seem like a dream! Irving’s first few books seem to be void of plot in favor of setting and character. He manages to make them work. It’s really interesting how you’ve built compartments for different areas of the book. It brought a lot back for me and helps me reconsider the book in a new light. I like the way Irving uses detail. He sometimes hits you over the head with it; it tends to drive suspension of disbelief. I recall the foreshadowing he does with the idea that Owen was “The Instrument of My Mother’s Death”.
Side bar… I remember reading On Walden Pond, by Emerson, around the same time. I loved many things about that book, but didn’t have much experience operationalizing virtue at that point. It was a good start.
Thanks for your comment Tony – I liked the book, probably better than Cider House Rules but both were fun and interesting to read. My next Irving book will probably be World According to Garp, but not anytime soon. In my blog post on Bobscorner.wordpress.com, I listed my 5 favorite novels Several people were disappointed, even angry,that I ddin’t include Steinbeck’s East of Eden, in my list. I really liked that book, but it didn’t make even my top 20. So tastes are different for different people. Bob