Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 8, 2016

Owen Meany recalled, revisited, reread

I Swear

Vic Fleming

On a Saturday in February, 1962, Owen gets ticked when he sees that Gravesend Academy school psychiatrist, Dr. Dolder, has again left his VW Beetle in the circular driveway by the Main Academy Building. The Zurich-born shrink is known for driving the easily walkable distance from his home to that of the headmaster. Where he’d have a few drinks, then walk home, to prove how responsible he was.

Owen is seeing Dr. Dolder as part of “disciplinary probation,” served up by the new headmaster, Mr. White, in lieu of expulsion. The offense: disrespecting a fellow student’s mother who had disrespected him. Owen, a senior and the presumptive valedictorian, arrives before sunrise to discharge his duties as a dining hall waiter. A growing resentment of Mr. White leads to a devilish idea.

The summer of 2016 has found me re-reading John Irving’s classic novel, “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” And enjoying it more than ever the fourth time around. Oh, the pleasures to be had from a great book reread!

Owen is about to back up and find a parking place elsewhere when he sees half the able-bodied basketball team walking toward the chow hall. He asks if they are strong enough to pick up a VW Bug. “Where do you want us to put it?” 

Half an hour later a janitor discovers the car. In the Great Hall, on the second floor of Main, where the student body will gather for chapel in an hour. It’s onstage next to the podium, as though an angel had driven it there.

Mr. White, determined not to let a student get “the last laugh” on him, quickly assembles a cadre of not-so-able-bodied faculty members, and their spouses, in an effort to remove the vehicle. Right off the bat, one of them falls on the stage stairs, spraining his ankle. The VW comes to rest on its tail end. It appears “to be saluting or applauding the weary faculty who [have] so ungracefully dropped it offstage.” 

Things go “from bad to worse, as they often will when amateurs are involved in an activity that they perform in bad temper.” Snow that was on the car has melted and made the floor slick. This proves a problem: “One of the faculty wives— … whose maternal girth was more substantial than well coordinated—slip[s] under the Volkswagen as it [is] being returned to its wheels ….” 

 To free the damsel in distress, the others tilt the Beetle … too far. The trapped one scrambles up, as the car falls on its side, smashing the driver’s-side window and mirror. To fix this, they overcompensate—bam! Now, it’s on its passenger side, with another window and mirror busted.

In a rage now, headmaster White, acting alone, gets the car on its wheels—straining his back in so doing. He gets into the driver’s seat and orders the others to push him out of the building. As arriving students sprint out of the way, the vehicle begins its descent on the curved marble stairway. 

Irving’s narrator, Johnny Wheelright, is reminded of an old New Hampshire saying: “Like a robin’s egg rollin’ down the spout of a rain gutter!” 

“A Prayer for Owen Meany.” You should read it. Or re-read it.