The gift of a good book

Michael Boylan's picture

I ran into my creative writing teacher from high school, Mrs. Horton, at Omega Books a while back. She remembered me, which was nice, especially since I was only at McIntosh for six months before graduating, and said she saw my writing in the paper over the years. I told her I kept in touch (on Facebook) with other members from our class and from Voices (the school’s literary magazine). It was good to catch up with her.

Mrs. Horton, ahead of me in line, had an armful of books. I spotted John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany” in the pile and winced and groaned.

“I could not get through that,” I said, ashamed to admit to my former teacher that I had given up on a book. “I’m not sure whether it was because I didn’t like the character or what, but I’ve tried it twice. Hated it.”

She put the heavy tome in my hands.

“Try again,” she said. “My gift to you.”

I have a hard time saying no to begin with and this time there was an audience of staff members from Omega and a woman I had just told to “muscle through” Stephen King's “The Gunslinger” to get to all of the good stuff in The Dark Tower series.

“O.K.,” I said. “I will give it another try.”

After I read this sleazy Tucker Max book first, I thought to myself.

We said our goodbyes, paid for our books and moved on. I put “A Prayer for Owen Meany” in a box in my trunk and didn’t think about it for a few weeks.
Several books later (I always have one going), I was looking for something a little more substantial than the last thing I had read (“Dark Places by Gillian Flynn - which was really good) and decided to take on “Owen Meany” for the third and final time.

I had never gone past the first chapter before. The chapters are long and the first chapter in this book is laying a lot of groundwork about the narrator, Johnny, his friend, Owen, who could be described as kind of a shrill mutant, and the town they grew up in. For some reason, I found a little more humanity in Owen this time around. He was still annoying, always speaking in CAPITAL LETTERS, but I figured there had to be some reason that Johnny remained friends with him, even after Owen’s role in a tragic accident. I would press on to find out why.

The second chapter was better than the first and Irving began to pick up the pace a bit and jump around in time. Not only does Johnny reflect on his childhood but he also reflects on his current life as an English teacher at an all-girls school in Canada. I began to make assumptions about things like why Johnny is in Canada and why Owen isn’t around in those scenes. Irving seemed to delight in tweaking those assumptions as the book went on.
The best thing though is that Owen, while still kind of a shrill pill in parts, endeared himself to me. I started to see why he was such a popular character, why so many people loved this book and why Johnny and others in Gravesend, New Hampshire loved him as well.

John Irving has written some amazing books and “A Prayer for Owen Meany” stands up with the best of them, even “The Cider House Rules” and “The World According to Garp.” It is funny, thought-provoking, challenging and entertaining. In short, everything one could want in a book. I don’t know why it didn’t work for me the first two times, but it worked this time. I guess I was just ready for it.

I am certainly a different person than I was at 14 (the age I was when the book came out) or 26, the second time I picked the book up. At 35, I am married, a father of two and someone who has slogged my way through writing (at least several drafts of) four novels. Nostalgia and regret are both more tangible to me now and a book that touches on both is definitely more meaningful to me these days. I can also appreciate the amazing amount of talent it must take to keep tabs on all of the plates that Irving set in motion in this story.

If you’re looking for a great book this summer, give this one a try (or “Dark Places,” “The Dark Tower” or my own “Time Killer,” available at Lulu.com)
Anyway, this was all just a way of saying, I finished the book this time, Mrs. Horton and there was a mist of tears in my eyes as I did.

Thank you.

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