A Prayer for Owen Meany
Chapter 6: The Voice
After Lydia's death, John's grandmother decides to acquire a television for 80 Front Street, though for years she had steadfastly resisted owning one. She allows John and Owen to watch whatever programs they wish, except the Late Show--Mrs. Wheelwright believes that they should have a reasonable bedtime. Mrs. Wheelwright watches the television constantly, and keeps up a running, scathing commentary on the banality of every show--so much so that when John and Owen watch without her, they find the TV boring. Thus 1954 begins around the television set; Owen and Mrs. Wheelwright, for all their differences, are united in their love for Liberace, whose show broadcasts ten times a week. In Mrs. Wheelwright's case, Liberace is the only performer she can tolerate.
John finds this love of Liberace so baffling that he complains to Dan, who tells him not to be so snobbish--Mrs. Wheelwright is getting old, and if she happens to like Liberace, so be it. When John complains about Owen, Dan tells him to be patient: when Owen is old enough to enter Gravesend Academy, he says, the academic challenges he will confront will discipline his mind. When the time comes to attend the academy, Mrs. Wheelwright agrees to buy Owen's clothes and he receives a full scholarship; but when John, a poor student, is asked to spend a year in public high school before coming to the academy, Owen decides to spend a year at public school with him, so that they will remain in the same grade.
Around Thanksgiving of 1954, Noah is attending the academy, and Hester comes to Gravesend to visit; she watches television for the first time, and is just as critical as Owen and Mrs. Wheelwright. Owen watches a movie about a nun, and gets what he calls "THE SHIVERS"--he despises Catholicism so deeply that nuns frighten him. He and John throw chestnuts at a statue of Mary Magdalene, and they are chased away by nuns, whom Owen calls "PENGUINS." By 1957, the boys are almost ready to enter the academy; they spend many nights watching Gravesend Players productions, trying to remember exactly who in the audience was at the baseball game where John's mother was killed. In the meantime, Owen gives John this advice about searching for his father: "EVERY TIME YOU GET A BONER, TRY TO THINK IF YOU REMIND YOURSELF OF ANYONE YOU KNOW."
On the subject of lust, John writes that he regretted not seeing more of Hester during those years; now that Simon and Noah are both at the academy, he had hoped for more frequent visits. Owen reminds John that Hester is his cousin, and says that it is probably best that she is beyond his reach.
Writing in 1987, John comments that Liberace, who was so beloved by Owen and Mrs. Wheelwright, has died; and he notes that it is Palm Sunday. He recalls that Owen hated Palm Sunday, and discusses how it is celebrated at the Bishop Strachan School, where he is a teacher. Writing later, on Easter, he describes the service at Grace Church, and thinks about Owen's responses to Easter.
John returns to his narrative. In the summer of 1958, he and Owen get their driver's licenses--Owen a month before John. They drive to nearby beaches and look at girls, and John realizes that in a strange way, Owen is attractive to women. He is always in command of a situation, and despite his diminutive stature, he has a developed musculature from working in his father's granite yards. He begins to smoke Camels, and the boys discuss the breasts of the girls in their grade.
In the fall of 1958, Owen and John enter Gravesend Academy. Owen immediately begins to thrive; the boys dub him "Sarcasm Master," and he earns the nickname "The Voice" for his essays in the student paper, The Grave. Owen prints all his text in upper-case letters, and uses the byline "THE VOICE." By Christmas, The Voice is an institution. Owen's status rises so high that he even invites Hester to the Senior Dance, to the horror of Noah and Simon: "She'll fuck our whole class and leave you looking at the chandelier." At the dance, however, Hester and Owen are inseparable, and John is consumed with a crushing envy of Owen that borders on resentment--especially when Noah and Simon begin speculating on whether Hester and Owen had sex after the dance, as many students believe. Over the summer, Owen works in the quarry, and John gives tours on the academy campus; they cruise the beach, and actually succeed in picking up girls from time to time. Young punks tend to pick on Owen, but he breaks one young man's pinky, and develops a reputation as untouchable. The next year, the boys return to the academy, while Hester begins attending the University of New Hampshire. Owen gains even more prestige because he is dating a college girl.
As the school year progresses, Owen develops an interest in basketball; despite his size, he plays in pick-up games, and becomes obsessed with the idea of performing a slam dunk. He forces John to practice a move with him where Owen leaps for the basket, and John lifts him up and holds him above the rim so he can stuff the ball. John complains, and Owen reminds him that John used to enjoy lifting Owen above his head during Sunday school class. Owen insists that the move has some sort of special purpose in his life, and he and John spend most of the Christmas of '59 practicing it.
In May of 1987, John writes another diatribe against Ronald Reagan, saying that the president does not care about remaining within the law. He says that he is tired, and describes the frustrating experience of trying to teach Tess of the D'Urbervilles to a twelfth grade English class; he remembers struggling with Tess in his tenth grade year. John says that Owen taught him how to really read a book, using Tess as an example. Returning to his narrative, he describes how, in the winter of '59, Rev. Merrill comes to teach religion at the academy; teaching a philosophy that holds doubt as an essential component of faith, he is involved in a number of intellectual debates with Owen, who as always, has the last word.
An academy search committee finally finishes a long search for a new headmaster; they hire Randy White, a businessman-type from an exclusive day school in Lake Forest, Illinois. As The Voice, Owen is appalled by White, and alleges that he is an anti-Semitic racist. Owen thinks the headmaster should be a man with a strong educational background; Mr. White thinks a headmaster should simply "make decisions." That summer, the summer of 1960, the boys are eighteen, and they register for the draft; at the time, it seems like an innocuous occurrence. They also practice the slam-dunk maneuver, which Owen calls "THE SHOT," incessantly, trying to successfully complete it in as short a time as possible--eight seconds, seven, six, five; but under four seconds is almost impossible. In the fall, Owen runs afoul of the new headmaster by opposing his authoritarian policies in his column, and he holds a mock Kennedy- Nixon election for the students. Kennedy, whom Owen supports passionately, wins in a landslide, but he predicts that the vote in November will be much closer. Mr. White is a Republican and a Nixon-supporter, and he appoints himself to be the faculty adviser of The Grave. Owen has made a powerful enemy.
But Owen is thrilled when Kennedy wins the election, and moved inexpressibly by his inaugural speech: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" becomes a kind of directive for Owen, who now believes that Kennedy is a kind of political and religious savior. He says that Kennedy is a bringer of light; and John, writing in 1987 and so full of rage against the Reagan administration that reading a newspaper sends him into a frenzy, agrees with him wholeheartedly.
In a way, the structure of A Prayer for Owen Meany revolves around the psychological development of the characters, in that each episode John narrates is distinctly ordered by memories that characterize the age he was when he had the experience. The early chapters of the book, which deal mostly with John's mother and his early childhood, are scattershot, with events narrated largely out of sequence and in short chunks--much as one would remember early childhood, the events of which become a combination of one's vague memories and the stories one has heard long after the fact. Chapters 4 and 5, which revolve around the Christmas pageant and A Christmas Carol, find Owen and John at eleven-and-a-half years old, an age at which a greater faculty of memory is available; suitably, the chapters center on a long, detailed exploration of a single sequence of events. But the events are still those likely to make an impression on a young boy; that is, they are entirely focused on John's own life, with little evident awareness of the outside world.
By Chapter 6, John and Owen are nearing adolescence, and they are beginning to have a much greater awareness of the world outside their lives--a fact symbolized by the acquisition of a television for 80 Front Street. For the rest of the novel, politics and the events of American history will form an almost constant backdrop to the story of John and Owen, so that, though it is not so at the beginning, the novel becomes a protracted meditation on the social history of the 1960s. The theme of 1960s social history continues for the rest of the novel; in fact, narrator-John's increasing obsession with politics in 1987 seems to stem directly from it. John and Owen's adolescence will directly dramatize what Irving perceives as the nation's loss of innocence in the 1960's, beginning with Owen's innocent admiration for John F. Kennedy. For John, the loss of innocence will be complete only when he watches Owen die in 1968, and he never completely separates his own experience from his feelings about America; in 1987, Reagan becomes an object on which to project his otherwise overwhelming sense of outrage, bitterness, and grief.
Speaking of innocence, the theme of sexuality has almost been fully developed by this point in the novel, because it has become integrated into the lives of Owen and John; though John remains a virgin, both the boys are now fully sexual beings in the sense that sexual thoughts and desires are no longer unfamiliar or frightening to them--they are simply part of their identities. More important in this chapter is the continued development of the theme of faith, particularly of Owen's personal sense of faith-based fatalism. Now that he has become "THE VOICE," and a highly respected member of the Gravesend Academy community, Owen might seem to be growing up, but he has not lost his total belief in his own special purpose in life--remember, Owen believes that he knows the date (from Scrooge's grave) and the nature of his own death. He seems to receive weird premonitions, as when he insists on practicing "The Shot" over and over again, to John's bafflement. As always, the end of the novel proves Owen right.
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