Read A prayer for Owen Meany Online

Authors: John Irving

Tags: #United States, #Fiction, #Psychological Fiction, #Young men, #death, #General, #Psychological, #Literary, #Fiction - General, #Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945), #General & Literary Fiction, #Classic Fiction, #War & Military, #Male friendship, #Friendship, #Boys, #Sports, #Predestination, #Birthfathers, #New Hampshire, #Religious fiction, #Vietnamese Conflict; 1961-1975, #Mothers, #Irving; John - Prose & Criticism, #Vietnam War; 1961-1975, #Mothers - Death, #Vietnam War; 1961-1975 - United States, #Belief and doubt

A prayer for Owen Meany

A Prayer


Owen Meany


John Irving
















I AM DOOMED to remember a boy with a wrecked voice-not because
of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even
because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the
reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. I make no
claims to have a life in Christ, or with Christ-and certainly not for Christ,
which I've heard some zealots claim. I'm not very sophisticated in my knowledge
of the Old Testament, and I've not read the New Testament since my Sunday
school days, except for those passages that I hear read aloud to me when I go
to church. I'm somewhat more familiar with the passages from the Bible that
appear in The Book of Common Prayer; I read my prayer book often, and my Bible
only on holy days-the prayer book is so much more orderly.

I've always been a pretty
regular churchgoer. I used to be a Congregationalist-I was baptized in the
Congregational Church, and after some years of fraternity with Episcopalians (I
was confirmed in the Episcopal Church, too), I became rather vague in my
religion: in my teens I attended a "non-denominational" church. Then
I became an Anglican; the Anglican Church of Canada has been my church-ever
since I left the United States, about twenty years ago. Being an Anglican is a
lot like being an Episcopalian-so much so that being an Anglican occasionally
impresses upon me the suspicion that I have simply become an Episcopalian
again. Anyway, I left the Congregationalists and the Episcopalians-and my
country once and for all. When I die, I shall attempt to be buried in New
Hampshire- alongside my mother-but the Anglican Church will perform the
necessary service before my body suffers the indignity of trying to be sneaked
through U.S. Customs. My selections from the Order for the Burial of the Dead
ate entirely conventional and can be found, in the order that I shall have them
read-not sung-in The Book of Common Prayer. Almost everyone I know will be
familiar with the passages from John, beginning with". . . whosoever
liveth and believeth in me shall never die." And then there's "... in
my Father's house are many mansions: If it were not so, I would have told
you." And I have always appreciated the frankness expressed in that
passage from Timothy, the one that goes ". . .we brought nothing into this
world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out." It will be a
by-the-book Anglican service, the kind that would make my former fellow
Congregationalists fidget in their pews. I am an Anglican now, and I shall die
an Anglican. But I skip a Sunday service now and then; I make no claims to be
especially pious; I have a church-rummage faith-the kind that needs patching up
every weekend. What faith I have I owe to Owen Meany, a boy I grew up with. It
is Owen who made me a believer. In Sunday school, we developed a form of
entertainment based on abusing Owen Meany, who was so small that not only did
his feet not touch the floor when he sat in his chair-his knees did not extend
to the edge of his seat; therefore, his legs stuck out straight, like the legs
of a doll. It was as if Owen Meany had been born without realistic joints. Owen
was so tiny, we loved to pick him up; in truth, we couldn't resist picking him
up. We thought it was a miracle: how little he weighed. This was also
incongruous because Owen came from a family in the granite business. The Meany
Granite Quarry was a big place, the equipment for blasting and cutting the
granite slabs was heavy and dangerous-looking; granite itself is such a rough,
substantial rock. But the only aura of the granite quarry that clung to Owen
was the granular dust, the gray powder that sprang off his clothes whenever we
lifted him up. He was the color of a gravestone; light was both absorbed and
reflected by his skin, as with a pearl, so that he appeared translucent at
times-especially at his temples, where his blue veins showed through his skin
(as though, in addition to his extraordinary size, there were other evidence
that he was born too soon). His vocal cords had not developed fully, or else
his voice had been injured by the rock dust of his family's business. Maybe he
had larynx damage, or a destroyed trachea; maybe he'd been hit in the throat by
a chunk of granite. To be heard at all, Owen had to shout through his nose. Yet
he was dear to us-"a little doll," the girls called him, while he
squirmed to get away from them; and from all of us. I don't remember how our
game of lifting Owen began. This was Christ Church, the Episcopal Church of
Graves-end, New Hampshire. Our Sunday school teacher was a strained,
unhappy-looking woman named Mrs. Walker. We thought this name suited her
because her method of teaching involved a lot of walking out of class. Mrs.
Walker would read us an instructive passage from the Bible. She would then ask
us to think seriously about what we had heard-"Silently and seriously,
that's how I want you to think!" she would say. "I'm going to leave
you alone with your thoughts, now," she would tell us ominously-as if our
thoughts were capable of driving us over the edge. "I want you to think
very hard," Mrs. Walker would say. Then she'd walk out on us. I think she
was a smoker, and she couldn't allow herself to smoke in frontofus. "When
I come back," she'd say, "we'll talk about it."

By the time she came back, of course, we'd forgotten everything
about whatever it was-because as soon as she left the room, we would fool
around with a frenzy. Because being alone with our thoughts was no fun, we
would pick up Owen Meany and pass him back and forth, overhead. We managed this
while remaining seated in our chairs-that was the challenge of the game.
Someone-I forget who started it-would get up, seize Owen, sit back down with
him, pass him to the next person, who would pass him on, and so forth. The
girls were included in this game; some of the girls were the most enthusiastic
about it. Everyone could lift up Owen. We were very careful; we never dropped
him. His shirt might become a little rumpled. His necktie was so long, Owen
tucked it into his trousers-or else it would have hung to his knees-and his
necktie often came untucked; sometimes his change would fall out (in our
faces). We always gave him his money back. If he had his baseball cards with
him, they, too, would fall out of his pockets. This made him cross because the
cards were alphabetized, or ordered under another system-all the infield-ers
together, maybe. We didn't know what the system was, but obviously Owen had a
system, because when Mrs. Walker came back to the room-when Owen returned to
his chair and we passed his nickels and dimes and his baseball cards back to
him-he would sit shuffling through the cards with a grim, silent fury. He was
not a good baseball player, but he did have a very small strike zone and as a
consequence he was often used as a pinch hitter-not because he ever hit the
ball with any authority (in fact, he was instructed never to swing at the
ball), but because he could be relied upon to earn a walk, a base on balls. In
Little League games he resented this exploitation and once refused to come to
bat unless he was allowed to swing at the pitches. But there was no bat small
enough for him to swing that didn't hurl his tiny body after it-that didn't
thump him on the back and knock him out of the batter's box and flat upon the
ground. So, after the humiliation of swinging at a few pitches, and missing
them, and whacking himself off his feet, Owen Meany selected that other
humiliation of standing motionless and crouched at home plate while the pitcher
aimed the ball at Owen's strike zone-and missed it, almost every time. Yet Owen
loved his baseball cards-and, for some reason, he clearly loved the game of
baseball itself, although the game was cruel to him. Opposing pitchers would
threaten him. They'd tell him that if he didn't swing at their pitches, they'd
hit him with the ball. "Your head's bigger than your strike zone,
pal," one pitcher told him. So Owen Meany made his way to first base after
being struck by pitches, too. Once on base, he was a star. No one could run the
bases like Owen. If our team could stay at bat long enough, Owen Meany could
steal home. He was used as a pinch runner in the late innings, too; pinch
runner and pinch hitter Meany-pinch walker Meany, we called him. In the field,
he was hopeless. He was afraid of the ball; he shut his eyes when it came
anywhere near Mm. And if by some miracle he managed to catch it, he couldn't
throw it; his hand was too small to get a good grip. But he was no ordinary
complainer; if he was self-pitying, his voice was so original in its expression
of complaint that he managed to make whining lovable. In Sunday school, when we
held Owen up in the air-especially, in the air!-he protested so uniquely. We
tortured him, I think, in order to hear his voice; I used to think his voice
came from another planet. Now I'm convinced it was a voice not entirely of this

"PUT ME DOWN!" he would say in a strangled, emphatic

But we just passed him around and around. He grew more
fatalistic about it, each time. His body was rigid; he wouldn't struggle. Once
we had him in the air, he folded his arms defiantly on his chest; he scowled at
the ceiling. Sometimes Owen grabbed hold of his chair the instant Mrs. Walker
left the room; he'd cling like a bird to a swing in its cage, but he was easy
to dislodge because he was ticklish. A girl named Sukey Swift was especially
deft at tickling Owen; instantly, his arms and legs would stick straight out
and we'd have him up in the air again.

"NO TICKLING!" he'd say, but the rules to this game
were our rules. We never listened to Owen. Inevitably, Mrs. Walker would return
to the room when Owen was in the air. Given the biblical nature of her
instructions to us: "to think very hard ..." she might have imagined
that by a supreme act of our combined and hardest thoughts we had succeeded in
levitating Owen Meany. She might have had the wit to suspect that Owen was
reaching toward heaven as a direct result of leaving us alone with our thoughts.
But Mrs. Walker's response was always the same-brutish and unimaginative and
incredibly dense. "Owen!" she would snap. ' 'Owen Meany, you get back
to your seat! You get down from up there!"

What could Mrs. Walker teach us about the Bible if she was stupid
enough to think that Owen Meany had put himself up in the air? Owen was always
dignified about it. He never said, "THEY DID IT! THEY ALWAYS DO IT! THEY

But although Owen would complain to us, he would never complain
about us. If he was occasionally capable of being a stoic in the air, he was
always a stoic when Mrs. Walker accused him of childish behavior. He would
never accuse us. Owen was no rat. As vividly as any number of the stories in
the Bible, Owen Meany showed us what a martyr was. It appeared there were no
hard feelings. Although we saved our most ritualized attacks on him for Sunday
school, we also lifted him up at other times-more spontaneously. Once someone
hooked him by bis collar to a coat tree in the elementary school auditorium;
even then, even there, Owen didn't struggle. He dangled silently, and waited
for someone to unhook him and put him down. And after gym class, someone hung
him in his locker and shut the door. "NOT FUNNY! NOT FUNNY!" he
called, and called, until someone must have agreed with him and freed him from
the company of his jockstrap-the size of a slingshot. How could I have known
that Owen was a hero? Let me say at the outset that I was a Wheelwright-that
was the family name that counted in our town: the Wheelwrights. And
Wheelwrights were not inclined toward sympathy to Meanys. We were a matriarchal
family because my grandfather died when he was a young man and left my
grandmother to carry on, which she managed rather grandly. I am descended from
John Adams on my grandmother's side (her maiden name was Bates, and her family
came to America on the Mayflower); yet, in our town, it was my grandfather's
name that had the clout, and my grandmother wielded her married name with such
a sure sense of self-possession that she might as well have been a Wheelwright
and an Adams and a Bates. Her Christian name was Harriet, but she was Mrs. Wheelwright
to almost everyone-certainly to everyone in Owen Meany's family. I think that
Grandmother's final vision of anyone named Meany would have been George
Meany-the labor man, the cigar smoker. The combination of unions and cigars did
not sit well with Harriet Wheelwright. (To my knowledge, George Meany is not
related to the Meany family from my town.) I grew up in Gravesend, New
Hampshire; we didn't have any unions there-a few cigar smokers, but no union
men. The town where I was born was purchased from an Indian sagamore in 
by the Rev. John Wheelwright, after whom I was named. In New England, the
Indian chiefs and higher-ups were called sagamores; although, by the time I was
a boy, die only sagamore I knew was a neighbor's dog-a male Labrador retriever
named Sagamore (not, I think, for his Indian ancestry but because of his
owner's ignorance). Sagamore's owner, our neighbor, Mr. Fish, always told me
that his dog was named for a lake where he spent his summers
swimming-"when I was a youth," Mr. Fish would say. Poor Mr. Fish: he
didn't know that the lake was named after Indian chiefs and higher-ups-and that
naming a stupid Labrador retriever "Sagamore" was certain to cause
some unholy offense. As you shall see, it did. But Americans are not great
historians, and so, for years-educated by my neighbor-I thought that sagamore
was an Indian word for lake. The canine Sagamore was killed by a diaper truck,
and I now believe that the gods of those troubled waters of that much-abused
lake were responsible. It would be a better story, I think, if Mr. Fish had
been killed by the diaper truck-but every study of the gods, of everyone's
gods, is a revelation of vengeance toward the innocent. (This is a part of my
particular faith that meets with opposition from my Congregationalist and
Episcopalian and Anglican friends.) As for my ancestor John Wheelwright, he
landed in Boston in , only two years before he bought our town. He was from
Lincolnshire, England-the hamlet of Saleby-and nobody knows why he named our
town Gravesend. He had no known contact with the British Gravesend, although
that is surely where the name of our town came from. Wheelwright was a
Cambridge graduate; he'd played football with Oliver Cromwell-whose estimation
of Wheelwright (as a football player) was both worshipful and paranoid. Oliver
Cromwell believed that Wheelwright was a vicious, even a dirty player, who had
perfected the art of tripping his opponents and then falling on them. Gravesend
(the British Gravesend) is in Kent-a fair distance from Wheelwright's stamping
ground. Perhaps he had a friend from there-maybe it was a friend who had wanted
to make the trip to America with Wheelwright, but who hadn't been able to leave
England, or had died on the voyage. According to Wall's History ofGravesend,
N.H., the Rev. John Wheelwright had been a good minister of the English church
until he began to "question the authority of certain dogmas''; he became a
Puritan, and was thereafter "silenced by the ecclesiastical powers, for
nonconformity." I feel that my own religious confusion, and stubbornness,
owe much to my ancestor, who suffered not only the criticisms of the English
church before he left for the new world; once he arrived, he ran afoul of his
fellow Puritans hi Boston. Together with the famous Mrs. Hutchinson, the Rev.
Mr. Wheelwright was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for disturbing'
'the civil peace''; in truth, he did nothing more seditious than offer some
heterodox opinions regarding the location of the Holy Ghost-but Massachusetts
judged him harshly. He was deprived of his weapons; and with his family and
several of his bravest adherents, he sailed north from Boston to Great Bay,
where he must have passed by two earlier New Hampshire outposts-what was then
called Strawbery Banke, at the mouth of the Pascataqua (now Portsmouth), and
the settlement in Dover. Wheelwright followed the Squamscott River out of Great
Bay; he went as far as the falls where the freshwater river met the saltwater
river. The forest would have been dense then; the Indians would have showed him
how good the fishing was. According to Wall's History of Gravesend, there were
"tracts of natural meadow" and "marshes bordering upon the

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