13 MAY 1989, Page 41


in New


Philip Glazebrook


Bloomsbury, £12.95, pp.543

If the argument of this weighty but never ponderous novel was to be taken out of its context and stated baldly, it might sound improbable and pretentious, even blasphe- mous. But the matter is so cunningly handled, the story so full of humour and affection, and the setting (a small town in New Hampshire) so convincingly solid underfoot, that the book manages to touch upon mysteries without covering them with grubby fingermarks. A Prayer for Owen Meany is the history of a child — a midget prodigy — the narrator's close friend, who is convinced by certain significant events of his mission and his destiny. One Christmas, doubling the roles of Baby Jesus in the Nativity Play with The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come In A Christmas Carol, Meany sees on Scrooge's gravestone the date of his own death; henceforth his life is lived looking forward to the fulfilment of this precogni- tion. At one time seen by the narrator as 'a tiny demon', at another as 'a fiery god sent td' adjudicate the error of our ways', this ageless child, whose utterances are capital- ised so that they convey the lapidary force of. pronouncements cut in stone, is the bnlhant invention at the heart of the book. Meany — 'the colour of a gravestone' from the dust of his family's granite quarry — is viewed in retrospect through the eyes of a narrator grown sour and testy (and obses- sed with religiosity) in self-exile from the spoliation of America, 'blaming the whole country' for what happened to his friend. 'Memory is a monster,' he says, 'it keeps things for you, it hides things from you . . . you think you have a memory, but it has you'. He is a little crazy. And Meany killed his mother before he had found out who his father was.

The narrator's subjectivity (and his man- ia) are unknown quantities in his portrayal of the dreadful sprite. Indeed, so deviously clever is the construction of the book that the narration of 'miraculous' happenings is always masked by this subjectivity, or by the speculation and hearsay of the com- munity, and we hardly know what we should believe. Further distortion is cre- ated by a labyrinthine treatment of the elapse of time. The narrator considers events, and gauges their effects, before he has described them, so that the reader approaches central facts (the death of the narrator's mother, for instance) through a landscape already overcast by discussion of her death — and by discussion also of the death of a neighbour's dog, run over by a diaper truck, so that the shadows of the two events are mingled together in our minds without the events being crudely juxtaposed in the narrative. 'I've learned to view the present with a forward-looking eye,' says the narrator, and this double vision, by bringing together several time- layers in one picture, increases the depth of focus so as to present us with foreground and background simultaneously. By such indirectness much may be suggested to a reader's mind which he might •reject if asked to swallow it uncooked. Knowing that the town is called Gravesend, for instance, and its student paper The Grave, we learn elsewhere that Meany's column in the paper is called 'The Voice': we are allowed to put these facts together in our minds, and to realise all on our own that it is Meany's 'voice from the grave' whose capitalised Socratic questions admonish the academy. Rarely does Irving lose his trust in his readers and tell them something sententious in plain words. This is a long novel, which bases itself square and firm on a detailed portrayal of the life and society of a New Hampshire town. In his exuberant invention of inci- dent and character, the author shows that affectionate fascination with contemporary life which was common among Victorian novelists but which seems rarely to exist in an English writer now (first novels ex- cepted). He conveys through his characters a passionate feeling for America — like Marilyn Monroe (says Meany) the country is 'beautiful, sexy, breathless' — and pas- sionate outrage that 'powerful men use it to treat themselves to a thrill', as the Kennedys are accused by Meany of using Marilyn Monroe. Perhaps this outrage at despoilment is a kind of patriotism which peculiarly inspires American novelists; or perhaps it is just that America still presents a sufficiently restless and unsettled society to fascinate a creative mind born into it, as English society once fascinated English novelists. Certainly Gravesend amused and interested me more than any fictional English town I've visited since Barchester.

'Amused' — I have not dwelt upon how marvellously funny this novel is because I don't want to make it sound like a farce. But it made me laugh aloud every few pages: the author's wit is an intrinsic part of the book, as the happy brilliance of a sunshaft seems to be part of the landscape it brightens. What better entertainment is there than a serious book which makes you laugh? Sheer enjoyment, though, makes judgment of weighty intent harder. At the end of the book I found the question in my mind which Eliot's magi asked: 'Were we led all this way for a Birth or a Death?' There is a birth, certainly: the unnatural infant swaddled in the crib for the Nativity play. But (as we are reminded) 'any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas'. And there is death — the predestined, sacrificial death of Meany which overshadows his life. However (as we are also told), 'Easter is the main event: if you don't believe in the Resurrection, you're not a believer'. It is what the book has to say about resurrec- tion that I could never quite get hold of.

newt, shards of glass, drawing-pins, caustic soda . . .