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Faith and Friendship. BOOKS

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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.''

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