Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

A Warm Friend On A Frigid Day

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice - not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. I make no claims to have a life in Christ, or with Christ - and certainly not for Christ, which I've heard some zealots claim. I'm not very sophisticated in my knowledge of the Old Testament, and I've not read the New Testament since Sunday school days, except for those passages that I hear read aloud to me when I go to church. I'm somewhat more familiar with the passages from the Bible that appear in the Book of Common Prayer; I read my prayer book often, and my Bible only on holy days - the prayer book is so much more orderly.

So starts my favorite book, John Irving’s “A Prayer For Owen Meany”. This, in my opinion is Irving’s best work but like all of his good books (the last two aren’t that good) it touches deep and leaves you with a hole inside when it is finished.

Irving, like Tom Robbins, chooses unlikely heroes and heroines for his books. They are flawed, broken by life, and while they are unusual they are capable of touching you.

Most of John Irving’s books are about loss and finding a way to go on, or as he put it so well in “The Hotel New Hampshire” it’s about finding a way to “keep passing the open windows.”

I will always feel indebted to Irving for making me understand that it was possible to feel when reading a good book. He led me to invest myself in his stories and in his characters.

In a letter home to my dad a couple of years ago (and posted more than a year ago on this website) I wrote the following about John Irving:

As you know, half the fun of going away is planning your escape. In the winter, it’s even easier. Fleece and boots and books. But what books? There’s always the challenge of finding just the right book. After slogging through some horribly written books as of late, I returned to an old favorite. After all, sitting by the fire, I want to love what I'm reading. After too much of Dan Brown’s pedestrian writing---The DaVinci Code and Angels & Demons—it was nice to slip into the following opening paragraph:

The summer my father bought the bear, none of us was born—we weren’t even conceived: not Frank, the oldest; not Franny, the loudest; not me, the next; and not the youngest of us, Lilly and Egg. My father and mother were hometown kids who knew each other all their lives, but their ‘union,’ as Frank always called it, hadn’t taken place when Father bought the bear.

After perusing USA Today’s 50 best seller list in Thursday’s paper, I cannot imagine more than two or three of the books having any paragraph as well crafted as that opening to John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire. It is a book that makes you sorry to finish because you’re saying goodbye to the characters you’ve grown to love.

The DaVinci Code was a fascinating tale, at least in the beginning, but the writing wasn’t anything special and I never slowed to savor the last half since I was simply glad to have finished it after struggling to read it several times.

And, of course, the test of any good literature, like any art, is the way it sits with you after you’re done, lingering like the memories of a lost love. I didn’t long to reconnect with any of the characters in the DaVinci Code, but I’ve never read an Irving book that didn’t make me want to know more about them, to see what happened to them, or at least save them from their loneliness. Some of his books even leave me depressed, not because of the story, but because of having to say goodbye to Garp, or Owen Meaney, or John Berry.Irving has a way of making you feel like you’ve lost someone you care about. Like you’ve said goodbye to innocence and hope and been broken and left to wallow in despair. But he makes you laugh and shocks you along the way. And then he shows you that even the most fragile character finds a way to carry on. I suppose what makes Irving so powerful is the way he captures the depth of loss, something we can all relate to.

I love the clean writing and the way I’m invited into one of Irving’s books. It’s one of the reasons why, during this cold, snowy and dangerous stretch of weather I’m revisiting “A Prayer For Owen Meany”. It’s like revisiting a dear, old friend.