Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving

Avenue of mysteriesThere’s a case to be made that John Irving isn’t an adventurous writer. After all, his 13 previous novels contain variants of the same themes, settings and character quirks: an orphanage or boarding school, the hypocrisies of the Catholic Church, a circus, protagonists who are either are writers or long to be, gender bending and homosexuality. And — oh yes — raunchy sex.

But just because Irving traverses the same territory doesn’t mean his novels are predictable or by any means ordinary. If anything, books like The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and Cider House Rules have been simultaneously slammed by critics and embraced by avid fans for the sheer weirdness of their meandering story lines.

Avenue of Mysteries, Irving’s latest, is no different. Its protagonist, 54-year-old Juan Diego, is a successful Mexican American writer with a long-standing heart problem who, in 2010, is on his way to Manila. He’s traveling to the Filipino city to honor the dying request of a draft-dodging hippie whose father is buried there. On the journey over, Diego decides to stop taking his beta-blockers because they interfere with his dreams and memories.

This is where things start to get murky. As Diego weans himself off the pills, then experiments with his dosage, the dreams — in the form of flashbacks to his childhood — return, first with a woolly soupiness, then with a vengeance. So while he’s physically traveling through Manila flanked either by Dorothy and her mother Miriam — two mysterious fans he met on the plane — or an ex-student from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who organized his Filipino journey, Diego is also mentally reliving his coming of age in Mexico.

With his mind hurtling back and forth chronologically at any given moment within each chapter, Diego exists in this elusive limbo land halfway between past and present realities for the entirety of the book. “But his thoughts (like his dreams) were so disjointed, it was hard for him to focus,” the narrator aptly notes. But Diego’s trouble with keeping his circumstances straight isn’t just his cross to bear; the problem extends to the reader as well.

Yes, the passages concerning Diego’s upbringing first as a pepenador — a dump kid — in the Oaxacan basurero, then as a ward at the Jesuit orphanage Niños Perdidos, are rife with scintillating detail. From the time his stand-in father mistakenly runs over 14-year-old Diego’s foot with a truck and cripples him for life, to the sudden death of his mother after being crushed by a falling statue of an evil-eyed Virgin Mary, to his circus stint at Circo de la Maravilla with his mind-reading and jibberish-speaking 13-year-old sister, Lupe (Owen Meany, anyone?), Irving’s story spinning is so fervent and outlandish that it’s easy to want to get swept up in the mayhem.

But herein lies the rub: We can’t. Because Irving is so intent on making both worlds — past and present — equally beguiling, he doesn’t fully succeed at doing either. In this competition for our attention between Diego’s dream states and his reality, we’re so busy trying to parse what in the name of thunder is going on that we forget how to enjoy what we’re reading.

And then there’s the matter of the sex (real or imagined) — with both Dorothy and her mother (should I mention the circus lion tamer’s appetite for prepubescent trapeze artists or a transvestite’s run-in with a pony? Uh-oh.). And the breasts of all shapes and sizes. And Diego’s infamous Viagra-fueled erections, with which he is incessantly preoccupied. It’s not that readers these days are prudish, but more that intercourse described as “Dorothy was a jackhammer in the superior position; with her heavy breasts swaying just above his face” just isn’t that titillating.

“I’m imagining things like a horny teenager!” Juan Diego at one point thinks to himself. Yep, you said it.

It’s only in the last third of the book that we catch glimpses of Diego’s heretofore-absent remorse and loneliness breaking through his facade as “an obdurate bachelor — a godless secular humanist.” These rare edifying moments — the “inimitable” love that develops between transgender Flor, an ex-prostitute, and Señor Eduardo, Diego’s adoptive parent; Diego’s palpable remorse when they die from AIDS — lend much-needed heart and soul to an otherwise raucous, spectacle-heavy story.

John Irving once did an interview in the New York Times about his writing process for the publication of his seventh book, A Prayer for Owen Meany. In it, he said: “I’ve read about myself that I am not to be taken seriously because I am a shameless entertainer, a crowd pleaser. You bet. I am. My feeling is I’m not going to get you to believe anything if I can’t get you to finish the book. I have a very simple formula, which is that you’ve got to be more interested on page 320 than on page 32.”

So with regard to Avenue of Mysteries, does Irving’s formula work? Let’s use this simple metaphor. Avenida de los Misterios is a street in northern Mexico City where Catholics make yearly pilgrimages to the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe. Some crawl for miles, their knees and elbows bloodied, to pay homage to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is believed to accomplish miracles. Drawing the inevitable comparison, Irving’s 14th novel is an Avenue of Mysteries all its own. But whether it’s worth the taxing journey to reach the end — or even Page 320 — that’s up to you to decide.

Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (November 5, 2015)

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