A Prayer for Owen Meany

by: John Irving

Chapter 8: The Finger

Summary Chapter 8: The Finger


Owen and John spend the summer of 1962 apart: Owen works for his father's quarry, and John works for his Uncle Alfred's lumberyard in Sawyer Depot. He lives with his aunt and uncle, and works with Noah and Simon. They spend their evenings waterskiing on Loveless Lake, and Noah and Simon set John up on innumerable dates with local girls; despite their help, he is still unable to lose his virginity. Owen and Hester live together in Hester's apartment, a fact which causes Aunt Martha a great deal of distress. John finds Owen and Hester to be a depressing couple: Owen is still maddeningly fatalistic about his own death--he even wants to be assigned to Vietnam after he finishes his ROTC training--and Hester is full of inchoate rage. As the years pass, she becomes a virulent antiwar protester.

In 1987, as he narrates his story, John is vacationing with his friend Katherine Keeling on her family's island; he describes watching wildlife, fishing with Katherine's husband, and shopping with the children. But he is troubled, as well: he cannot seem to put aside his addiction to the newspapers, or his uncontrollable anger about the Reagan administration. He describes his early years in Canada, when, unlike most American expatriates fleeing Vietnam service, he is mostly concerned about fitting in to his new country. John is not in Canada to evade the draft; somehow he was able to do that before he left America, though he does not say how. He also describes overhearing Katherine's husband refer to him as a "non-practicing homosexual"; he heaps scorn upon the description, but does not directly comment on his own sexuality.

In the summer of 1962, Owen and John correspond by letters, and John escorts Simon to the emergency room after he cuts his finger working with a logging crew in the forest. In the emergency room, a car-wreck victim tells him that Marilyn Monroe has died. In a letter, Owen says that Marilyn Monroe was just like America: "A LITTLE BREATHLESS, VERY BEAUTIFUL, MAYBE A LITTLE STUPID, MAYBE A LOT SMARTER THAN SHE SEEMED." In a diatribe, he accuses John F. Kennedy of having treated Monroe as simply a cheap thrill, just as powerful politicians always treat America. Commenting on the moral tone, John writes that in 1987, Larry Lish has become a well-known journalist in New York.

In the fall of 1962, Owen and John begin their freshman year at the University of New Hampshire. For once, Owen does not excel academically; he puts most of his energy into his ROTC courses, and lets his studies slide. For his own part, John, now an English major, finds the work so easy compared to Gravesend Academy that he actually makes better grades than Owen. Both the boys live at home and commute to school--John in a new Volkswagen Beetle purchased for him by his grandmother.

In the summer of 1963, John gets a job in the monument shop at Mr. Meany's quarry, making gravestones. That November, they are at 80 Front Street when they learn about Kennedy's assassination, a development which deeply upsets Mrs. Wheelwright. In late December, John asks Hester about Owen's recurring dream, but all she will say is that she hates to watch him when he is having it. All that year, Owen works with the Catholics in Gravesend to replace the statue of Mary Magdalene--he even designs the pedestal himself. Time goes by, their college years pass, and more and more American boys are sent to Vietnam; Hester becomes angrier, and Owen works even harder to ensure his future combat assignment. John and Hester cannot understand him, and Owen and Hester argue frequently. Worried, John pays a secret visit to Owen's ROTC leader and tells him that he does not think Owen Meany is emotionally stable enough to be sent to Vietnam. But Owen tells him he has to go, because he cannot make a judgment about the war until he has seen it for himself.

After their junior year, Owen goes to Basic Training, desperate to finish first in his group. He finishes second, because he is too short to jump over the obstacle course wall. Owen begins to worry that he may not be sent to Vietnam; he seems destined for an administrative assignment, but he does not want to spend the war "behind a desk." By February of 1966, John's own situation seems perilous; he will attend graduate school at the university next year, and will thus be exempt from the draft; but the year after, the graduate deferment rule will end, and he will be eligible to be drafted. Everyone in his life encourages John to take steps to avoid the draft, but John is an indecisive twenty-four-year-old, and does not do so.

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