A Prayer for Owen Meany and Joseph

Speaking of Josephs, John Irving hit the jackpot in his best selling novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, published in 1989.  I don’t like all of his novels, but I could re-read this one every year, and Christmas is the best time.

One of the main events in this novel about faith, friendship and sacrifice, is the nativity pageant at the local church with the narrator Johnny Wheelwright as Joseph.  He bemoans his fate as a sidekick to the featured Mary and child.

Another key “Joseph” in the novel is Johnny’s stepfather, Dan Needham, who begins their awkward relationship with the gift of a stuffed armadillo but develops into Johnny’s confidante.  Dan has married Tabby Wheelwright without demanding an explanation as to who Johnny’s father is.

Johnny’s search for his earthly and, paralleling that, for his country’s father and his heavenly father, is central to the plot of the novel, with Johnny’s faith-filled best friend, the brilliant Owen Meany as the leader in this quest.

As the two boys grow up, the reader comes to know a host of additional quirky characters in Gravesend, New Hampshire, true to one of Irving’s literary inspirations, Charles Dickens.   The Christmas play, A Christmas Carol, is cast and performed, with Owen Meany featured, most appropriately, as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

Owen’s own parents are a curious and silent pair, believing that Owen is more than their earthly son. Mrs. Meany asserts that she was a virgin at Owen’s birth.  That makes Mr. Meany another Joseph in this magnificent tale.  Their individuality is destroyed by the burden of this experience, and, Irving asserts that anyone who witnessed a true miracle would be changed forever.

The author quotes Frederick Buechner:

“Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.”

Ok, that’s heavy thinking, but the novel contains so many hilarious moments that the reader will laugh out loud.  I have never met a reader who did not feel compelled to talk to someone else about it!

If some of these details sound familiar, you may have seen the movie based on this novel, Simon Birch.  Because the entire second half of the movie (and the compelling surprise ending) was altered, Irving insisted that the movie credits read, “Inspired by the novel. . .” I left the theater disappointed and sorry to have my imagination compromised by the visual images from the film.

An incredible study of faith and doubt in the modern world, the novel forces each reader to confront his beliefs as they are colored by our understanding of history and religious upbringing.  I find something new to consider each time I visit the novel.

The depth of the development of characters and their experiences is missing in more recent Irving works.  Cider House Rules (1985) and A Prayer for Owen Meany are my favorites.  Put this novel on your Christmas read or re-read list.