Two best friends grow up into young men in a small New England town in John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” The tale of Johnny Wheelwright and his pal Owen Meany is set in the eerily named Gravesend, New Hampshire, where the two are bonded in their youth and face life’s trials and tribulations together. This is not your typical coming-of-age story, and I have the feeling it will stay with me for quite awhile.
Owen Meany (who, it’s worth noting, is rarely referred to by just his first name) is a strange kid. He’s small–not “he will hit that growth spurt a bit late” small–but permanently small, and has an unusual voice that grates on people. Luckily, he finds a lifelong, fierce friend in Johnny, our narrator, who is being raised by his young, beautiful single mother and his grandmother. Johnny doesn’t know his father, and Owen Meany’s parents are basically hermits, so Owen becomes part of the alternative family at the Wheelwright home (which includes the housekeeping staff).
The two friends first meet in Sunday school, in which Owen expresses strong dislike for Catholicism. In fact, he has opinions on a lot of subjects. Have you ever had a friend whose convictions were as unshakeable as granite? That is Owen Meany. As our story progresses, we learn that Johnny is telling it as an adult. There are hints of tragedy, and the eight or so parts of the book begin to wind together in remarkable ways. There is a baseball game and a Christmas pageant that are defining moments, changing the lives of the friends forever.
The book is at times beautiful and harsh, political and innocent, unbelievable and unflinching. The title character develops the most during the tale, as Johnny describes his progression into a well-respected, powerful columnist at the private school they both attend. But after the fact we see Johnny reflect on their childhood and his relationship with Owen, who is symbolic of fulfilling one’s destiny, of believing in one’s self, and of doing what is right to leave a lasting legacy.