John Irving


"A Prayer for Owen Meany"

(Reviewed by Neil Chapman AUG 31, 2008)

The story begins in 1953 in a little town called Gravesend, New Hampshire. The main character is Little Johnny Wheelwright, an eleven-year-old boy who is finding his feet in his small town world. Johnny like most kids, is inquisitive about all worldly things, and he explores his limited social outlets for interaction and excitement. The sleepy town offers little more than school and church for the righteous young lad, which does little to enliven his dulled spirit. Johnny’s character develops as he pits his wits against the townsfolk, affirming his thoughts and suspicions of the people through members of his household, subject to the approval of his matriarchal Grandmother. Johnny finds an accomplice and confidant for this boyhood voyage of discovery, a strange yet enigmatic boy called Owen Meany. Owen is an oddball, a heady mix of precocious intelligence and child freak. His diminutive size and the haunting pitch of his voice mark him out for ridicule by the other children, at least those that aren’t spooked by him. Owen however isn’t fazed by this, he has an understanding of things beyond mere acceptance; an almost irrational belief in himself and his faith in Gods will. Despite their physical differences, the boys find their two minds offer many advantages; greater insights and childhood fantasies evolve, and more than a little mischief is had at the expense of the locals.

"Every fall, the horse-chestnut trees between Tan Lane and Garfield Street produced many smooth, hard, dark-brown missiles; it was inevitable that Owen and I should pass by the statue of Mary Magdalene with our pockets full of chestnuts. Despite his fear of nuns, Owen could not resist the target that the holy goalie presented; I was a better shot, but Owen threw his chestnuts more fervently. We left scarcely any marks on Mary Magdalene’s ground-length robe, on her bland, snowy face, or on her open hands – outstretched in apparent supplication. Yet the nuns, in a fury that only religious persecution can account for, would attack us; their pursuit was erratic, their shrieks like the cries of bats surprised by sunlight – Owen and I had no trouble outrunning them. ‘Penguins!’ Owen would cry as he ran."

The boys friendship is jeopardised when Owen accidentally mishits a baseball which kills Johnny’s Mother. Somehow dealing with each others emotional trauma helps to bond them together, forging an almost brotherly love and commitment to helping one another. Owens resultant nurturing of Johnny first appears to be a way of relieving his sense of guilt, and no doubt affirming his devotion to Johnny’s mother. It becomes apparent though that Owen has his own theory on the tragic baseball incident, that God wanted Owen to believe he was an instrument of his will, and that his destiny was surely part of some divine plan. When Owen experiences a vision, he knows he must ensure Johnny is around for judgement day, not that Johnny would know why.

As Owen's foresight and rather frank appraisal of School matters start to gather notoriety, his cynical essays in the School Newspaper being of repute, the people of Gravesend begin to marvel at this enigmatic little fellow. Johnny observed this phenomenon with great interest, his best friend somehow a magnet for controversy, chaos and even female attention. The town, peaceful and largely without incident, is repeatedly brought to its knees by the actions of the uniquely talented Owen Meany. Yet only he knows what the future holds for him. I don’t want to spoil the book so I’ll just say the story follows the boys as they become men and follow their vocations.

The main plot, when introduced, seems almost inconspicuous due to the tremendous framework of background story and subplots; these are barely distinguishable from each other because of the consistent invention of the Author, and it’s this that makes the plot seem secondary to the brilliantly crafted writing. I was so happy getting to know the characters and values of the story world that I didn’t miss a stand-out plot. Instead this book offers something different, it’s like a little window in time spent as someone else; an eyeglass examination of other peoples lives and relationships. The scenes are gently enticing, magically fascinating, and dappled with humour and irony; and yes don’t worry there’s a fiendishly clever and moving plot too. The stories from the characters lives are familiar and believable without ever being stereotyped, which make them feel all the more real. What I find most impressive, is the skill used to construct a book in this sweeping, understated style. It’s mind blowing and I’m completely in awe of the author for it.

It’s fair to say that this book is predominantly American in form, the lifestyles, locations and religious references no doubt harder to place without some prior knowledge of them, but it need not detract from your enjoyment of this book. I say that inasmuch as there is even more reason for you to read it if you share some affinity with the story events i.e. small town life, religious beliefs and denominations, school pageants, college life, family relationships, politics. The book does contain some foul language it should be said.

That about covers it. It’s not the book that I would instantly pick up wherever I was, it needs quiet time and deliberation, a private audience so you can learn to appreciate it, and in return it will reward you. It’s one of those very special books. Enjoy.

  • Amazon readers ratings: from 1089 reviews
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"The Cider House Rules"

(Reviewd by Judi Clark APR 10, 1999)

Cider House Rules is about abortion in the days before Roe v. Wade when there was a kind doctor who would either take in young girls who wanted to give up their babies for adoption or to prevent those babies from ever coming into the world. There are other stories mixed in here even one of first love.

St. Cloud's is an orphanage located far upriver in an old logging town of Maine. Dr. Wilbur Larch is a celibate physician that directs the orphanage, delivers babies and performs abortions illegally.  ("You either get an abortion or an orphan...") He is the spiritual father to orphan Homer Wells, who he informally teaches the gynecology business. Dr. Larch is worried that they will one day close his business and women will not have a place to go.  So he falsifies some records, makes Homer a physician and then attributes some antiabortion rhetoric to him as a cover so that the board will hire him.  It turns out that antiabortion rhetoric is closer to Homer's real opinion on abortion and he pulls back from the place that's been prepared for him.

This is probably Irving's most serious novel but done with the same spellbinding knack to make us see, smell, hear and believe everything we are told. Irving usually leaves me with one or two strong images and in this one it is of migrant workers at an Apple Farm located near the ocean. After reading this novel, I couldn't pass old Old Orchard Beach in Maine without this scene in my head.  

  • Amazon readers ratings: starsfrom 350 reviews
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"The World According to Garp"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark APR 10, 1999)

When I think of Garp, I am in a Boston Back Bay apartment on a Sunday afternoon. There were about six of us hanging around waiting.  Earlier in the day we had lost our friend Tim to The World According to Garp. He was reading in one of the back bedrooms. We had each already read the book and knew that Tim was almost to the middle of the book - to the "driveway scene."

"Aw, Gawwwd!" we hear from the back bedroom.  Tim had hit the scene. 

I wasn't going to include this novel because I didn't believe there could be a soul left who hadn't read it already, except maybe those that saw the movie. But it's been twenty years since it was published and it is time for a reread. I know I'd like to see those wild characters and crazy scenes again.   Do you know what's it like to go to Vienna AFTER you've read John Irving?  My friends and I could not stop giggling in the pension we had chosen to stay in. We felt as his we were living Irving scenes from Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire. OK, enough memories, I promise to reread the book and write a straight review one of these days.

  • Amazon readers ratings: starsfrom 293 reviews

 



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About the Author:

John IrvingJohn Irving was born in Exeter, NH in 1942 and grew up right on Front Street. His father taught history at Phillips-Exeter Academy, giving John automatic admittance to attend the prep school.  He went to the University of New Hampshire and while there, participated in the study-abroad program in Vienna. In the late 60s he studied with Kurt Vonnegut at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

He published his first book at age 26. His first three novels were recieved well but did not have a lot publicity. His fourth novel, The World According to Garp was an international bestseller and cultural phenomenon and finalist for the National Book Award. Garp transformed Irving from an obscure, academic literary writer to a household name, guaranteeing bestseller status for all of his subsequent books.

In 1992, John Irving was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma. In 2001, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Vermont and Toronto.

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