Review: A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving

A Prayer for Owen MeanyA Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It is hard to fly in the face of popular culture when reviewing a much-beloved novel. Such is the case with John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. Indeed Irving had much to say, it would appear, when he wrote Owen Meany.

The novel examines morality both personal and state, religion and faith (in this case Christianity), and the concept of fate or precognition.

Released more than a decade after the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War, Irving criticized loudly and clearly his government’s actions in the novel. In fact, so loud was Irving’s condemnation it very nearly became the undoing of the story. There are interminable pages of statistics enumerating the escalation of troops committed and troops returned as bodies, over and over again, so that all action and tension is suspended so the reader can wallow in Irving’s almost Oliver Stone-like docutainment.

There are those who would defend Irving’s grim and calculated reportage, stating the moral bankruptcy of the US government’s involvement in the Vietnam War was a cornerstone premise of the novel. That is true. But certainly Irving’s point could have been made with a less heavy hand. There is no nuance. There are only interminable statistics.

Human morality is handled in an equally obvious manner, employing what amounts to almost Dickensian caricatures, and thus Irving’s message is rendered less sympathetic.

Irving’s examination of Christian religion and faith is no less heavy-handed. It is, in fact, quite burlesque, from the fiasco of a Christmas pageant through to Meany’s own fevered belief his life, and indeed his ending, is preordained, inescapable.

Marry all of these shortcomings to a writing style devoid of any memorable insight or beauty, and the whole epic, for this reader, fell very short of what it could have been.

That is not to say A Prayer for Owen Meany is not a novel you should avoid. Quite the contrary. It should be read. What Irving has to say is worth your effort and attention. Just don’t expect to necessarily enjoy the journey.

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