Faith and Friendship. BOOKS

A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY by John Irving, New York: William Morrow, 543 pp., $19.95

THE book has already been headlined ``The Gospel According to John Irving.'' Yes, it's a modern novel by an ultramodern author who deals seriously and directly with - hold on tight - Christianity.

But it's a real story, and what a story! In it, two New Hampshire kids grow up to face the victimizing Vietnam war. The protagonist, tiny Owen Meany, with his diamond-sharp wit and squeaky voice, has a large fate to meet. Because he foresees his own death as a hero and doesn't shrink from it, Owen himself is the chief metaphor of this book, a ``little'' proof that faith is still important in today's world. That Owen's faith is mixed with good measures of irony, sadness, and even fatalism doesn't prevent it from being, in some significant respects, the real article.

Irving is helping put religion back on the map of modern literature, doing it seriously, with his unique grace and wit. John Wheelright, Owen's best friend, is the main sounding board for Owen's faith. As John himself says, he learns from Owen how to believe in God. Out of their experiences as boys and eventually as young men, the themes of faith and friendship dance some sad, wacky, hilarious, humane turns that keep you reading to the last page.

The subject of faith in God is so tightly woven into this story that it won't be possible for even the cleverest of critics to deal with the book's cloudless style, powerful imagination, and vivid characterization, and yet avoid its main theme - the varieties of faith that turn sometimes fatal, or shallow, or tragic, or even stupid. The book warns directly: ``Watch out for people who call themselves religious; make sure you know what they mean - make sure they know what they mean.''

In a very funny scene, a minister whose moral lapse years before provides a good bit of the drama in the book is tricked into a deeper ``faith.'' But this is a religiously neutered cleric who deserves a good lesson, as readers will see. One would in fact expect this bit of spoof from Irving, who after all doesn't claim quite the moral seriousness of a Flannery O'Connor or a Dostoyevsky.

Owen is touchingly caring about John. When they are still youngsters, Owen tries to comfort John in his pain from being illegitimate and assures John that God will show him who his father is. John's early loss of his mother is compensated somewhat by a truly civilized stepfather, Dan. It is Dan who shows John how to be a real friend to Owen at a time when their friendship could easily have been lost.

The reader is pulled along by Irving's authentic humor, classic farce, and ready wit. Owen becomes a ``little Slam-Dunk master'' in private games of basketball with John, who lifts Owen up to the basket so he can dunk the ball. But its fated play and the occasional sharp jabs of profanity are timed for maximum effect.

Owen may well become, overnight, an accepted, even preeminent Christ figure in modern literature. Such savior figures are not portrayed as identical to Christ Jesus, with fundamental parallels and singular correspondences. Rather, they tend to be distorted characters that toy with the idea of the holy and are often used by atheist writers in bizarre ways. This is not to say that Irving here is debunking all faith, nor is Owen uncompelling. He's flawed and absurd, but he's also sincere, loyal, endearing.

Irving also states openly the theme of universal disappointment from endings that do not work out. Key clergy in the story specialize in self-centered, hypocritical, even arrogant religion. Yet some characters are able to forget themselves for others, as if in a Tolstoy novel. There are several touches of spiritualism.

Through it all John retains a trust in the transcendent, which Owen taught him. However irreverent at times, Irving manages to leave a rainbow of faith hanging over the story, albeit one of highly modern colors.

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