A Prayer for Owen Meany

Living in an area with too many people and cars, I spend a lot of time in mine. I can’t stand commercials and useless traffic reports, and I’m too cheap to pay for a subscription service.

Fortunately, I’m alive at the most wonderful time in human history! I have Audible.com.

I listened to A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving recently. I enjoyed the book so much I bought a hardback copy for my personal library—such as it is; I gave most of my hundreds of books to the Mt. Vernon, Iowa library a few years ago to lighten my load when I thought I was moving to Spain.

But some books require your absolute attention and this is one of them. Listening while driving is a good way to get something out of your time in awful traffic, but you miss a lot. For some odd reason, other things keep taking your mind away from the book you’re listening to.

You don’t want to miss a single word of A Prayer for Owen Meany.

One particular page caught my attention. The book tells the life of Owen Meany from his childhood. Owen is a small person, very intelligent, seems to have some powers of discernment and knowledge of the future, and believes he is one of God’s instruments on Earth. Toward the end of the book, our hero, Owen has passed through the age of innocence. Previously a rabid fan of JFK, he’s found out that President Kennedy had an affair with Marilyn Monroe and tells Johnny Wheelwright, his friend, and the story’s narrator,

“Those famous, powerful men—did they really love her? Did they take care of her? If she was ever with the Kennedys, they couldn’t have loved her—they were just using her, they were just being careless and treating themselves to a thrill. That’s what powerful men do to this country—it’s a beautiful, sexy, breathless country, and powerful men use it to treat themselves to a thrill! They say they love it but they don’t mean it. They say things to make themselves appear good—they make themselves appear moral. That’s what I thought Kennedy was: a moralist. But he was just giving us a snow job, he was just being a good seducer. I thought he was a savior. I thought he wanted to use his power to do good. But people will say and do anything just to get the power, then they’ll use the power just to get a thrill. Marilyn Monroe was always looking for the best man—maybe she wanted the man with the most integrity, maybe she wanted the man with the most ability to do good. And she was seduced, over and over again—she got fooled, she was tricked, she got used, she was used up. Just like the country. The country wants a savior. The country is a sucker for powerful men who look good. We think they’re moralists and then they just use us. That’s what’s going to happen to you and me,” said Owen Meany. “We’re going to be used.”

John Irving, speaking through his protagonist, Owen Meany, is right. This country is a sucker for powerful men who look good. The thing that’s so difficult to fathom, though, is that we continue to allow ourselves to be played for suckers. Every election cycle we’re fed the same bullshit and we keep eating it up. (Yes, I intended that sentence to be disgusting. It’s exactly how I feel.)

I believe we are programmed to forget unpleasantness, and the more unpleasant, the faster we forget. I believe someday we’ll find there’s a gene that’s responsible for this behavior. I only have second-hand knowledge of most of the human procreation process, but by anyone’s standards, anyone I’ve ever known, the entire gestation period is uncomfortable, to say the least, fraught with problems or the risk of problems, and the birth process itself seems to be something no women in her right mind would go through a second time. But the human brain is programmed to forget just how awful the process was as soon as it’s over. Were it not so, the human race would have become extinct hundreds of thousands of years ago.

We also seem to have a gene that gives us an infinite ability to believe the future is going to be better than the present. Because of this and the fact that we so easily and quickly forget the past, we believe someday we’ll elect the right person and the laws of economics and human nature itself will all be changed. We’ll have heaven on Earth. Maybe this unquenchable hope for the future, combined with the innate ability, and even requirement, to forget horrible moments of the past is what keeps us all moving forward.

Unfortunately, we don’t seem to possess much of an imagination gene. We forget the past and look to the future, but without the ability to question whether just possibly we’ve gone down a bunny trail leading nowhere.

I can’t put my finger on exactly what’s wrong, but something is and we keep looking to powerful people to lead us, to fix all that ails us, to comfort us, and to be our moral leader through all tribulation. We keep wanting what we can’t have, so we keep disliking what we get.

Maybe next time we’ll get it right. Until then, I’m glad I can lose myself in writing such as John Irving produces.


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