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When Owen and John are nineteen-year-old seniors at Gravesend Academy, Owen tells John what he meant by removing the claws from John's armadillo after John's mother's death in 1953: "GOD HAS TAKEN YOUR MOTHER. MY HANDS WERE THE INSTRUMENT. GOD HAS TAKEN MY HANDS. I AM GOD'S INSTRUMENT." John is so surprised that he drops Owen as he catches him for "The Shot." At the time, John thinks Owen is a lunatic for believing himself to be the instrument of God. While practicing The Shot in the academy gym over the Christmas holiday of 1961, they argue fiercely about it. But after their argument in the high school gym, they successfully perform The Shot in under four seconds for the first time. Owen triumphantly announces that "IT JUST TAKES A LITTLE MORE FAITH."
They also argue that year about college: John plans to attend the state university in New Hampshire, while Owen could easily get a full scholarship to Harvard or Yale. Owen wants John to at least apply to a better school, but John is certain he would be rejected. Owen insists that they stay together, but John refuses to let Owen deny himself the chance to go to a better school simply to stay with John in New Hampshire--even though Owen has been given a prestigious scholarship to the University of New Hampshire as the most outstanding high school student in the state. Owen is the shoo-in valedictorian of his class, and is now in charge of The Grave--he even uses the editorial copy machine to make fake IDs for his classmates.
As seniors in the academy, they are granted the privilege of traveling to Boston by train two afternoons a week. Most of the students use this privilege to meet up with former Gravesend students now at Harvard, and to drink and go to strip clubs. But Owen takes John to a clothing store called Jerrold's, whose sign matches the tag on John's mother's red dress--the dress she claimed to have kept only because the clothing store burned down before she could return it. Owen is on a mission to obtain more information about John's mother, and also, possibly, his still-unknown father; he shows a picture of Tabby Wheelwright to the owner of Jerrold's, who identifies her as "The Lady in Red," who used to sing at a local supper club in the '40s and '50s. John, shocked by this revelation--his mother lied to him--goes numbly with Owen to the home of her former singing teacher, the man she had traveled to Boston to study under, Graham McSwiney. Owen gains an audience with this illustrious man by pretending that he wants his vocal cords to be examined, in the hope that his shrill, nasal voice might someday deepen. When Mr. McSwiney examines him, he discovers that Owen's Adam's apple is in the position of a constant scream, elevated into his throat. But Owen says that God gave him his voice for a reason, and shows the man a picture of John's mother. Mr. McSwiney recognizes her as The Lady in Red, as well, and says that he did teach her--she was a pretty-voiced but fairly lazy student--and find her the job at The Orange Grove. He gives them the names of some men who used to be associated with The Orange Grove before it closed, but he is unable to help them in any other way.
John frequently interrupts his narrative of 1961 with increasingly hostile attacks on America and the Reagan administration, which in July of 1987 is embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal. He begins reading The New York Times, though it disgusts him, and longs to be invited to a friend's summer home for a retreat. He says that politics is like junk food: when he is eating a cheeseburger, he cannot concentrate on any other taste, and when he is thinking about politics, his anger blinds him to every other pursuit. His anger consistently makes him think of Vietnam, and he rages at length against that war, mentioning innumerable figures, dates, facts, and references. He remembers how he, Owen, and Hester spent their New Year's Eves from 1962 to 1968, noting during each year how many troops were in Vietnam and how many were killed; every year, Hester passes the stroke of midnight by vomiting after drinking too much. At last, John receives the invitation to his friend's home, and goes eagerly to a long-awaited vacation.
Interspersed with anti-Reagan diatribes, the narrative of the '60s continues piecemeal. For Christmas in 1961, Mrs. Wheelwright gives Owen a diary, and he begins to write in it regularly--he gushes about John F. Kennedy, and also writes extremely fatalistic prophecies about his own future: "I KNOW WHEN I'M GOING TO DIE." In 1961, John is not allowed to see the diary, but the 1987 John who is narrating the story has seen it, and occasionally provides glimpses.
Owen has continued to alienate Randy White, the head of the school, and his problems worsen dramatically as his senior year nears its close. A rich, cynical student named Larry Lish tells Owen that John F. Kennedy has been sleeping with Marilyn Monroe, a pronouncement that infuriates Owen. When Larry's mother Mitzy, a well-connected socialite, confirms the rumor for Owen, he is so upset, and she bullies him so shamelessly, that he sexually propositions her simply to shut her up. But she reports him to Mr. White, who uses the incident in an attempt to expel Owen from Gravesend Academy; in the end, faculty support keeps Owen in the school, but he is on probation, and any wrongdoing will result in his dismissal. In the meantime, Owen is forced to endure sessions with Dr. Dolder, a psychologist from Zurich whom Owen considers a reprehensible idiot. He also consults with Rev. Merrill, whose classes he has continued to take--he sometimes talks to Rev. Merrill about the afterlife, he says, but mostly he tells Rev. Merrill about Dr. Dolder and Dr. Dolder about Rev. Merrill.
I think that Owen's being swaddled too tightly to move his arms in "The Little Lord Jesus" is another instance of the armlessness motif, especially considering the religious setting of the pageant.
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This story is too great a fabrication to take seriously. It borders on fantasy. Irving is a strange person with a very warped perspective of religion.
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Take a Study Break!