Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Avenue of Mysteries

Longtime fans of John Irving’s novels will note several recurrent themes and techniques in Avenue of Mysteries that hark back to Irving’s earlier work: the plight of orphans, life inside a small circus, the homosexual and transsexual lifestyles, the dubious value of organized religion, and the use of magical realism to move his plot along, among them.   The novel is so clearly a John Irving novel, in fact, that upon its completion, one senses at least a bit of déjà vu in the air.

Avenue of Mysteries is a coming of age novel focusing on Juan Diego, a boy who along with his younger sister Lupe lives along side a huge garbage dump in Oaxaca, Mexico protected by the man who may or may not be Juan Diego’s father.  Juan Diego and Lupe are children of extraordinary talents.  Juan Diego has successfully taught himself to read in both Spanish and English by studying the books he manages to save from the garbage dump’s fires.  But despite Juan Diego’s prowess with words, his sister’s talent may be even greater than his: she reads minds and can sometimes predict the future. 

Juan Diego is, however, no longer a child.  He and Lupe left the dump almost sixty years ago, and those times now live only in his memories and dreams.  Despite being so largely self-taught, Juan Diego managed to carve out a successful writing and teaching career for himself in the United States, but now recently retired from the world of academia, he is on his way to the Philippines where he plans (or, depending on how you look at it, will be forced) to spend some time with a still enthusiastic ex-student of his. 

Author John Irving
Early on during the trip, the professor, no longer a healthy man, finds that tinkering with the dosage of his daily meds has a great impact on his wakefulness, his energy level, his sexual prowess, and most importantly, on his dreams.  Juan Diego so enjoys reliving his past through his dreams that once he finds the dosage combination that most often allows him to reach his most vivid dream state he is reluctant to return to taking his medicines as prescribed – no matter the consequences to his health.  So, in alternating segments (sometimes within the same chapter), the reader learns Juan Diego’s childhood story and follows him on his sexual adventure across the Philippines. 

Typical of previous John Irving novels, Avenue of Mysteries is a complicated blending of realism and magic, a long story filled with memorable characters that come and go in the life of the book’s main character.  There are Mexican prostitutes of both sexes, the strictest of Catholic nuns, orphans galore, unbending priests, an evil lion tamer, girl acrobats, inspirational female doctors, dogs with personality, a Virgin Mary statue whose eyes move and shed tears, a mother and daughter who both spend hours in bed with our hero  - and most important to Juan Diego, there is the failed candidate to the priesthood who changes Juan Diego’s life forever for the better.

All that said – and despite how much I enjoyed much of it – Avenue of Mysteries is not destined to rank anywhere among my favorite John Irving novels.  Parts of it are simply more of a chore to get through than they should be, and the story takes a little longer to tell than it should have taken.  Despite that, the author’s fans will not want to miss Avenue of Mysteries, because who knows which of Irving’s novels will be the one he decides is his last.

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