Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Bateman Blog 005: A Prayer For Owen Meany

A long time ago, eleven or so years when I was just old enough to legally drink, a few of my friends worked in a bar called Smugglers Inn. It was a mock English pub, for expats and tourists, on the waterfront in the village of Stanley, on the south side of Hong Kong Island. It was run by two alcoholic Chinese brothers and frequented by their triad 'friends', teenagers either just old enough or not quite old enough to drink (they didn't discriminate) and the odd, genuine 'regular' - those people destined to wile away a good portion of their lives on a barstool. In the UK, in miserable little drinking holes across towns and cities across the spectrum of prosperity, this is not unusual. But in a very social city like Hong Kong, where drinking is widely regarded as an exercise rather than a habit, people who choose to dress their alcoholism down in such an unflattering way are banished to provincial outposts like Smugglers Inn in Stanley. There was the only Caucasian bus driver in Hong Kong, whose wife had died when he was quite a bit younger and who was surly when he arrived sober and abusive when he was inevitably asked to leave five hours later. There was Paul and Denise Clark, brother and sister in their late 30s/early 40s who, except for the fact that they had been raised in Hong Kong by their now departed parents, were the real life versions of Steve Coogan's Paul and Pauline Carr. There was Nicky, who'd turned her passion for surfing into a reasonably successful business venture, opening a surf shop in Stanley market, but who, at night, seemed determined to piss it away - possibly because she was trapped in a marriage with a particularly unpleasant local triad. And, finally, there was Dilip.

Dilip was half Indian, half English I think, but more English than Indian; mild-mannered and very intelligent, as you'd expect from an accountant. He might've been gay and he might've liked boys only just 'of age'; he might also've just been lonely and had more to talk about with bright, bratty teenagers than his fellow regulars. He was quite patronising and as he became friendlier with us we became less impressed with his smarts and his willingness to buy us drinks. By the end of my friend groups' weird and brief 'friendship' with Dilip I think we were probably just out-and-out rude to him – but during this time he gave me some brand new vinyl – Joy Division's 'Unknown Pleasures' and 'Closer' and New Order's 'Substance' (because he didn't have a record player) – and he recommended I read ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ by John Irving. I listened to the records a few times, though I could never properly get into Joy Division, but never read the book. Still, people recommend books to me all the time that I say I'll read and never do and that I then forget about, but ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ stuck with me - possibly because it's a great title but I really couldn't say.

Not long after, Dilip got a brain tumour. He survived and had to shave his head and would demonstrate the enormous scar across the top of his head to us when he returned, on occasion and for far fewer drinks, looking much thinner, to Smugglers Inn. He survived a car crash that saw his taxi flipped onto its roof on the winding mountain roads from Stanley to the centre of Hong Kong Island after someone I know hit them from behind, racing drunk round blind turns (it was the son of a prominent judge so he got off with having his license briefly suspended). After we all moved away for university I heard his brain tumour came back and he died in his late thirties.

I never bought ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ but a few years after Dilip recommended I read it I bought ‘Let's Talk About Feelings’ by Lagwagon, a record whose final track is called 'Owen Meaney'. I'm not sure if the difference in spelling is deliberate but it kept alive the notion that, if I ever came across it and had the time, maybe I should read the book. I tend not to believe in signs and suchlike, but the enigmatic lyrics to ‘Owen Meaney’ and Dilip’s fate gave the book an air of intrigue and meant that I'd probably have to read it one day, if only to satisfy my curiosity.
Back around the time Dilip gave me the Joy Division records I only really listened to bands that sounded like Lagwagon - fast, melodic punk. Since then, I've come to realise that most bands that sound like this are shit; however, I always had a soft spot for the 'wagon and with time my nostalgic fondness for them has developed into a genuine love. Singer Joey Cape writes modern punk rock like modern country - like all music that follows a formula, when it's done well it ticks all the right boxes and functions just as it says it will on the tin. Not adventurous or overly original - it's better than those things. Words don't really explain music very well but to me it's catchy, triumphant, sorrowful and joyous.

The main reason I love Lagwagon rather than just quite like them though is because of the album 'Resolve'. It's not their best album (that would be 'Blaze' closely followed by 'Hoss') but it's definitely their most meaningful and powerfully resonant record, because it's about the suicide of former Lagwagon drummer, Derrick Plourde. Bands usually get this kind of thing terribly wrong - the 'dedicated to the memory of' genre tends to be nothing of the sort, and finds writers slipping into the most vulgar and self-indulgent solipsism that gives the objective listener/reader no sense of the subject or what their life was like. Plourde's a ghostly presence throughout ‘Resolve’ but Cape brightens the corners of a stranger's life perfectly, touching on the homogenous emptiness that defines sprawling suburban life, and how wide open spaces suggest freedom at the expense of community; he remembers Plourde vicariously through the music and grieves when the music ends; he sympathises with Plourde's family (he shot himself in the face in his parents' bedroom) and rails against the drug addiction that led Plourde to deceive his friends and family, to let them down time and again as he went from rehab to community shelter to relapse. Finally, Cape finds comfort in his own family and acknowledges his friend's greatest influence - Plourde introduced Cape to his future wife. It's emotional but unsentimental and it's this that makes it so moving.

Anyway, I stumbled across a brand new copy of Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany in a cupboard at the London Stock Exchange (funnily enough, I was there to meet Andrew Ferris so what a fitting forum this is for this story) and decided that I should take it. Three years later I got round to reading it. Though the back cover hails it as a 'modern American classic' I was sorely disappointed. It's loosely about faith in God and how faith, regardless of whether one actually believes in God, helps people mourn the hard, absoluteness of death; it's loosely about the Vietnam War and the American psyche. The premise is superb - eleven year old Owen Meany kills his best friend's mum while playing baseball and comes to think of himself as an instrument of God - but the 600+ pages are exceptionally tedious. I didn't like the characters and I didn't like the narrator and I found Owen Meany vile and, worse, disbelievable.

* * *

I read on a Lagwagon fans' website that 'Owen Meaney' is probably about Derrick Plourde and possibly written before his death. That's mildly disconcerting considering Owen Meany's fate, though I suppose not really that exceptional, as one tends to assume that hard drug addiction leads to a grisly end. Still, my curiosity sated after reading it, I found myself wishing I hadn't. Reading fiction is a great form of escapism; but not knowing what this book was about was even better - it fuelled my imagination. It was a personal little mystery that I didn’t know until I’d read it that I didn’t want to solve. There are lots of these little mysteries in the novel that are never unravelled. Faith is a mystery of sorts, but why we believe isn’t; we believe because we’re scared of death – and death is the biggest mystery and yet the hardest fact of all. 'Owen Meaney' is a decent song but, having read the book with the similar name, I can't help thinking it was merely a prototype for the songs on Resolve – better because they’re inspired by a true, not just potential, tragedy. Maybe that's callous. I'll never know why Dilip liked the book so much, but after finishing the book I wondered if he ever thought of the tumour as his own, personal baseball, pitched by some awful instrument of God.

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