This is the story of two young friends, beginning from their childhood as schoolboys in a New Hampshire classroom and continuing through their adolescence and into adulthood. John Wheelwright, the narrator, is from a wealthy and respected family. He is a surprisingly ordinary and passive character, at least in his younger years, but serves well as a lens from which to view Owen Meany. Owen is a physically underdeveloped but deeply intelligent boy with an unchanged high voice, like one stuck in a permanent scream (and written IN ALL CAPS like Pratchett’s Death). He is from a working class family, and is an unlikely match for John, but they are the best of friends.
Tragedy strikes the Wheelwright family when the boys are quite young, and it greatly affects the course of John and Owen’s lives. Owen doesn’t believe it was just an unfortunate accident. He believes it was all part of God’s plan, and his involvement was just him acting as God’s tool. The questions throughout the novel are whether this is just his way of coping with a random and terrible accident and what this belief will make him do later in his life.
“I want to go on being a student,” I told him. “I want to be a teacher. I’m just a reader,” I said.
“DON’T SOUND SO ASHAMED,” he said. “READING IS A GIFT.”
“I learned it from you,” I told him.
“IT DOESN’T MATTER WHERE YOU LEARNED IT- IT’S A GIFT. IF YOU CARE ABOUT SOMETHING, YOU HAVE TO PROTECT IT. IF YOU’RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO FIND A WAY OF LIFE YOU LOVE, YOU HAVE TO FIND THE COURAGE TO LIVE IT.”
This is a slow and steady novel. Really, very slow. Irving details, what seems at the time, incredibly mundane events in the lives of these two boys, and he does so in painstaking detail. The novel spans thirty years, but in many ways it feels like you live every second of that time. This is something I would have normally found excruciating, but I really enjoyed the writing and spending time with these characters. I was continually surprised with how little the pace bothered me.
Irving, in this novel at least, has a knack for elevating the mundane. He’s very clever in how he brings to life those small events that often go unnoticed. There’s a scene in this where John has to introduce his rowdy cousins to Owen Meany, and it so perfectly captures the mild horror that accompanies the act of introducing two different groups of friends to each other. His cousins are rough and loud and violent, and Owen is small and thoughtful. Even though the meeting ends terribly, John finds himself surprised. as we often are in these situations, with how accommodating his cousins acted.
This is my first John Irving novel, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. A lot of reviewers mentioned weeping at the end, while having their lives changed by these characters, but I didn’t have that reaction. It may be my lack of religious faith, so that angle didn’t affect me in the same way as some, or it might just be that I’m emotionally dead inside. I think it’s largely that the general idea of the ending was purposely telegraphed so early on that I felt I had come to terms with it before I got there. It was sad, without a doubt, but it wasn’t a punch-in-the-gut moment for me personally.
“THE ONLY WAY YOU CAN GET AMERICANS TO NOTICE ANYTHING IS TO TAX THEM OR DRAFT THEM OR KILL THEM,” Owen said. He said that once—when Hester proposed abolishing the draft. “IF YOU ABOLISH THE DRAFT,” said Owen Meany, “MOST AMERICANS WILL SIMPLY STOP CARING ABOUT WHAT WE’RE DOING IN OTHER PARTS OF THE WORLD.”
I know these characters will stick with me for a very long time, and I found his mixture of humour and tragedy to be perfectly balanced. The setting, New Hampshire in the fifties and sixties, under the backdrop of the Vietnam War, allowed Irving to voice his outrage and explore war from the view back home. The length of the book and the slow pace, not something I typically desire, in this case really helped solidify these characters in the mind of the reader. You come out having spent so much time in John Wheelwright’s head that the world, and it’s inhabitants, feel real. And not in the typical way of a well-written novel. There’s something about the narrow focus of the narrative, how it follows these two and their every move, that really paints a complete picture in a special way.
I really enjoyed this. Maybe not as much as the people on Goodreads who named their children after Owen, but still very much. I have The Cider House Rules on my shelf already, so that will probably be the next John Irving novel I tackle.