A Prayer For Owen Meany is a fantastic novel by John Irving. First published in 1989, the book deals with the weighty issues of Christianity, death, and the Vietnam war while still wrapping itself up with a very enjoyable, easy to swallow plot that will keep you absorbed in the book. It should be noted that the movie Simon Birch is loosely based on this novel. It is available as a mass market paperback with ISBN number 0345361792.
The book mostly revolves around Owen Meany and John Wheelwright, two boys who grow up together in the small town of Gravesend, New Hampshire. The book is told from the perspective of John, but the central character of the book is Owen. Owen is the son of a granite quarrier who is quite small for his age, but also quite wise and intelligent.
The book chronicles how the two boys grow up together and learn about the world in different ways, mostly in that John is something of a reflection of Owen. A good portion of the book revolves around their religious upbringing, so expect a focus on religion in the book. In the end, though, the book is really a fun romp with a large number of worthwhile issues hidden just under the surface, just as any good novel should be.
As usual, John Irving creates a handful of truly memorable set pieces in the book. The scene of the headmaster driving a trashed Volkswagen down the school's marble staircase is one of these. So are the Christmas pageants Owen stars in, as is the Little League game that provides the centerpiece of the first part of the book. It is from these memorable scenes that the characters are really built, and not just Owen Meany and John Wheelwright; this book is loaded with well-constructed minor characters, too, from John's grandmother and her maid to the various teachers at the academy.
The main point of the book is self-discovery, I think. Owen knows his purpose in life (he believes he is the instrument of God; whether he is or not is up for debate), but John is constantly seeking it in trying to discover the identity of his father. Often, religion is used in this self-discovery in a lot of ways, but this book never really seems to comment on organized religion itself that much. The book's countless subplots add up to a moral argument against American foreign policy from Vietnam to the Iran-Contra affair, which seems to be his real commentary here.
The plot itself is quite touching and does encourage reflection on religion and what is really important in life, as well as a strong consideration of American foreign policy from a relatively abstract perspective. There are several moments within the book that nearly brought a tear to my eye, and not necessarily the conclusion, either. Yet this isn't what I would call a tear-jerking book; instead, I think the phrase "thoughtful" is much more appropriate here.
Another aspect of the novel I found quite enjoyable is the abundance of literary references throughout. Irving pays tribute to some of his literary heroes, borrowing stylistically from Günter Grass (especially his novel, The Tin Drum) and Robertson Davies and his Deptford trilogy, all of which are worth reading. In addition, major parts of the plot involve a version of A Christmas Carol and portions of Julius Caesar serve as a plot point.
This book is as solid as anything John Irving has ever written, and he's written a lot of good stuff. I would also recommend The World According To Garp and The Cider House Rules from his catalogue if you enjoyed this one, though I have yet to read a poor novel by Irving. Even if the content doesn't sound that intriguing to you, Owen Meany is definitely worth picking up; the story most of the time flows so well that you don't even realize the larger points. That is definitely the sign of a good novel.