I seem to be having a books-with-holy-protagonists kick at the moment. This is my third book in which one of the main characters believes his- or herself a chosen one of God. Owen Meany, a character created by John Irving and perhaps better known to the public at large as Simon Birch, considers himself to be an “instrument of God.” The novel, narrated from the point of view of Owen’s best friend, John, is told in mostly a series of memories from the 1950s and 60s, occasionally interrupted by snippets of John’s life in the present (late 80s). Like Shay Bourne in Change of Heart, which I reviewed two posts ago, the reader realizes early in the novel that Owen is a very special character. He is very short in stature, but his speaking voice is described by John as being unforgettable. In fact, every bit of dialog belonging to Owen is written in all capital letters. Owen draws people to him as a magnet does iron. Girls want to touch him (as a pet when he is younger, and in another way entirely when he is older). He dates the same girl for nearly ten years. John’s grandmother adores him, buys his nice clothes and uniforms for private school, and remembers his voice even in the midst of severe dementia at 99 years old. Despite Owen’s accidental involvement in John’s mother’s death, John and Owen remain best friends for life. As Owen grows, he makes his share of enemies as well due to his biting wit and his supreme intelligence. What this character lacks in size he makes up for threefold in personality, and the reader cannot help but join his crowd of adoring fans.
The plot seemed to suffer a bit in order to make room for character development, but not enough to discourage reading the novel. John does a good job of creating suspense for his readers, giving hints–if not outright details–away in the midst of his reminiscing. Indeed, towards the end I could not put the novel down because the event toward which John has been building the suspense is finally revealed, and I desperately wanted to know what it was. Irving does a wonderful job of dangling clues in the reader’s face and making one desperate to know more. There were several places where I felt the plot dragged a little too much, but Irving made up for this in both suspense at the end and delightfully dry humor throughout.
There are moments in the novel, in addition to being funny enough to laugh aloud, or boring enough to fall asleep, that are sad or moving enough to bring tears to the eyes. It is a rare instance that characters affect me so deeply as to make me cry, but the bonds that Irving builds between his characters (first and foremost John and Owen) are moving enough that I could not help myself. It’s a novel that really studies the relationships that humans build with each other, and reminds the reader how beautiful those can be. It will also raise, in some of you, fond memories from your own childhood and cause you to remember long forgotten times with your own best friends–a side-effect that I personally found very amusing.
The novel cannot be called charming or quaint (it’s mostly about a friendship between adolescent boys. Use your imagination), but who wants to read that sort of thing anyway? It is fun and rowdy, full of pranks and hilarity, yet at times quite serious and emotionally stirring. Also, there’s a movie that is, at best, loosely based on the book. I’m sure everyone has seen Simon Birch. If not, you should. It is also very good. Still, the novel is much better, and very much worth reading.