In many ways, this is a very enjoyable book. John Irving's style is pleasantly unadorned. His characters are fairly interesting, and they have some pretty entertaining adventures. But overall, I felt this was a flawed work.
Prayer is the story of two boys growing up in New Hampshire, the narrator and his friend, Owen Meany. The narrator has a very sweet and beautiful mother but he doesn't know who his father is. Owen Meany is small and has a funny voice, but he's very smart and serious and knows he's destined to serve God in some meaningful way. The story is actually told in flashback by the narrator, who has grown up to be an English teacher in Canada.
And if this were a novel about two boys growing up in New England, it would have been pretty enjoyable. But this is a novel about FAITH and GOD and the MORAL EXHAUSTION of AMERICA and its FOREIGN POLICY. Which is really too much baggage for the narrative to carry. The foreign policy angle is in some ways the weakest. It comes from two equally dull angles: much action takes place during the troop buildup in Vietnam, and the adult narrator comments on the Iran-Contra affair. The Vietnam material really doesn't offer anything new. Vietnam was a misbegotten foreign policy adventure, and the counterculture response to it was largely overblown, self-serving, and ineffectual. It's a perfectly reasonable position, and perfectly dull. Dull would be acceptable in an essay about Vietnam, not in a novel. The commentary on Iran-Contra is even deadlier to the novel, as it contributes little to the story. I generally agree with the narrator on Reagan and Iran-Contra; that doesn't make interested in hearing him opine.
The spiritual elements are more integral to the novel and overall handled in a better manner. The main problem is that the issue of faith in the novel revolves around a miracle, one which we do not learn about until the very end. This miracle, which takes a tragic form, gives meaning to Owen Meany's life and leads the narrator to become religious. The miracle is heavily foreshadowed: heavily and somewhat obviously. I had a pretty good idea of what the miracle would be over 100 pages before it comes about, which made those pages particularly dull and robbed it of whatever impact it may have intended to have. The effect was less of a sense of mysterious forces at work and more of an author going through plot machinations to achieve an effect.So, I overall enjoyed the story, especially the first half or so before the author really tries to bear down with those heavy themes that his novel is not really set up to handle.
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