Johnny Wheelwright tells his story in a nonlinear memoir format. He begins by saying he will always remember Owen Meany. It’s not because he was so small and his voice so strange, and not because Owen was instrumental in killing his mother. Johnny will remember him because Owen is the reason he is a Christian.
Johnny recalls how everyone in Gravesend, New Hampshire, was fascinated by Owen’s small size. Johnny’s mother, Tabitha, had Johnny out of wedlock and refused to tell anyone the name of his father. She used to ride a train into Boston once a week for singing lessons and spent the night in the city. She claimed to have met Johnny’s father on the train. She promised to tell Johnny his father’s identity when he was old enough, but she died before doing so, when he was 11. Owen is convinced that God will one day reveal his father’s name.
Johnny and his mother lived with his Grandmother Harriet, who claimed Owen’s voice could make dead mice come back to life. Johnny describes his friend Owen as having a strange and irritating voice.
Johnny recalls the day of his mother’s death. She had arrived at the last inning of his and Owen’s Little League game. The coach uncharacteristically allowed Owen to bat. Owen fouled the ball over the fence, hitting Tabitha in the temple and killing her instantly. Owen was devastated, since he loved Johnny’s mother. He cried out his apology before running home. Someone put a coat over Johnny’s head so he couldn’t see her body, but he could hear the chief of police asking where the murder weapon went. Johnny suspected Owen took the ball home.
Johnny met his stepfather, Dan Needham, when he was 6. Tabitha announced at the dinner table that she’d met another man on the train. After assuring her mother that she wasn’t pregnant, she said Dan was interviewing for a position at the Gravesend Academy. Dan gave Johnny a paper bag and asked him to keep an eye on it, but not to open it. If it moved, Johnny should call him. Johnny finally opened the bag to find a stuffed armadillo. Dan had used it as a prop for one of his classes. Dan gave the animal to Johnny.
Johnny and his mother visited his aunt in Sawyer Depot twice a year. Johnny’s cousins Simon, Noah and Hester are rough and athletic. Although Owen desperately wanted to visit Sawyer Depot, Johnny was afraid his cousins would accidently kill the small boy. Owen is eventually able to meet the cousins. They play a game in which Hester hides in their grandmother’s closet and the boys have to find her before she grabs their penises. When Owen goes into the closet, Hester tickles him. That scares him, so he wets himself. He runs home, but Johnny and his mother drive after him and bring him back. The cousins do not belittle him, and they all become friends.
The day after Tabitha’s death, Owen’s father drives him to Johnny’s house. Owen gives Johnny his prize collection of baseball cards. Johnny asks Dan what he should do with them. Dan explains that by giving Johnny his cards, Owen is trying to give something special to Johnny since he has taken someone special away. He suggests that Johnny give Owen something special to show that he still wanted to be friends. Dan is touched when Johnny says that his only prize possession is his armadillo. Dan convinces Johnny to give the animal to Owen and assures him that Owen will return it.
When Owen returns it, the animal no longer has its front legs. Dan explains that Owen is trying to show how each of them lost something vital when Johnny’s mother died. Later, Johnny learns that Owen was explaining that God had taken his hands since they had caused Tabitha’s death.
Johnny now lives in Toronto, Canada. Obsessed with newspaper headlines, he begins a diatribe about America’s current political system under Ronald Regan. He recalls Regan as a governor at the start of the Vietnam War and then describes how Owen always understood the many sides of the war while he, Johnny, understood little. He says that it was Owen Meany who kept him from going to Vietnam. Although Owen may have killed his mother, he gave Johnny far more in return.
Four years after they began dating, Dan Needham and Tabitha Wheelwright finally got married. They were wed in the chapel at the Academy and both the Rev. Merrill of the Congregationalist church and the Rev. Wiggin of the Episcopal church presided. Tabitha’s funeral a year later took place at the same location.
The Christmas following Tabitha’s death, Dan directs the annual production of A Christmas Carol. He casts Owen as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. At the last performance, Owen faints when his character points to Scrooge’s grave. He later tells Johnny that he saw his own name on the grave. When Johnny asks about the date on the stone, Owen lies and says he didn’t see it.
After working a summer in his family’s quarry, Owen grows strong. Once he attends the Academy (high school), Owen thrives. His sarcasm and way with words earn him the nickname “The Voice.” But Owen’s newspaper commentaries begin to upset the headmaster, Mr. White.
Meanwhile, Owen insists that Johnny help him perfect a layup in basketball. It requires that Johnny lift Owen up to the basket. Owen is adamant that they keep practicing until they get “the shot” down to less than four seconds.
The tension between Mr. White and Owen escalates. When a student is caught buying alcohol with a fake ID that Owen provided, Owen is expelled. Owen steals the granite statue of Mary Magdalene from the Catholic church and removes its arms and head. He places it where the students and faculty gather for morning chapel. Before being fired from the school, Mr. White makes sure that Owen’s college scholarships to Harvard and Yale are rescinded. Owen attends the University of New Hampshire on an ROTC scholarship.
Johnny and Owen start college together. Owen concentrates on his ROTC training, insisting that he wants to go to Vietnam. Owen and Johnny’s cousin Hester, who have been dating since high school, move in together. Eventually Owen tells Johnny that he’d had a reoccurring dream in which he died in the arms of a nun after saving a group of Vietnamese children.
He is convinced that it is his destiny to die in Vietnam, but he is assigned to a noncombat station in Arizona. He accompanies the bodies of fallen soldiers home to their families. When Johnny is ordered to report for an Army physical, Owen tells him to do nothing until he arrives home on leave. Owen gets Johnny drunk and cuts off Johnny’s right index finger so he wouldn’t be drafted.
In the final chapter, Johnny discusses Owen’s funeral. He visits the Rev. Merrill to discuss Owen. The reverend suddenly cries out in Owen’s voice, ordering Johnny to look in a desk drawer. As if possessed, the reverend pulls out the baseball that killed Johnny’s mother and admits to being his father.
Owen had asked Johnny to visit him in Phoenix while he was detained because of a military mix-up with the body of a soldier. Owen’s diary reveals that he was confused because he knew he was to die saving Vietnamese children soon, but he was not in Vietnam. Johnny and Owen meet the soldier’s dysfunctional family, including his 15-year-old half-brother, Dick, who was intent on killing the Viet Cong.
Johnny and Owen spend the rest of their time together drinking and reminiscing. As they wait at the airport for his plane, Owen spies several nuns and Vietnamese children. One of the nuns asks them to accompany the boys to the restroom. They do. Dick bursts into the bathroom, screaming that he will use these children as practice for Vietnam. Owen gets the kids to lie down before Dick throws a grenade into the bathroom.
Owen reminds Johnny of “the shot.” Johnny catches the grenade, throws it to Owen and then lifts Owen up to a recessed window where he covers it with his arms. The grenade explodes and the children are saved. Owen’s arms are blown off and he dies in the arms of a nun, just as he’d foreseen. Johnny ends by saying Owen’s life and death are what convinced him there is indeed a God. He prays every day that God will return his friend to him.