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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Review of "Avenue of Mysteries" by John Irving

3.5 Stars

A middle-aged writer, Juan Diego Guerrero, is on a trip to the Philippines.  Other than having sex with a sexually voracious mother (Miriam) and daughter (Dorothy) and arguing about Catholicism with a friend/former student of his, Juan Diego spends much of his time on that trip reliving his life in memories and dreams.  “Juan Diego lived there, in the past – reliving, in his imagination, the losses that had marked him” (300) because “The past was where he lived most confidently, and with the surest sense of knowing who he was” (95).  He and his sister Lupe, the children of a prostitute, grew up in a garbage dump in Oaxaca, Mexico.  Through a circuitous route, Juan Diego eventually ended up in Iowa where he became a writer of some renown.

Like Irving’s other novels, this one is peopled with quirky characters:  a transvestite, circus performers, a mother and daughter who may not be mere mortals, Jesuit priests, a Vietnam War draft dodger, and an animated statue of the Virgin Mary.  It is Lupe who is the most interesting character; she reminds me of Owen Meany:  Owen speaks in a high-pitched shouting voice whereas Lupe speaks in such a garbled way that only her brother understands her; Owen is advanced in his intellect and self-awareness and predicts both the manner and the importance of his own death, and Lupe has the ability to read minds and predict the future to some extent, including the circumstances of her death; and both share a view that Lupe expresses when she says to her brother,  “’We’re the miraculous ones’” (428).   

At one point, Juan Diego compares writing a novel to treading water; it is “’a lot of work, but you’re basically covering old ground – you’re hanging out in familiar territory’” (300).  In this novel, Irving is very much in his home territory.  He explores his usual motifs of motifs of religion, sex, and friendship.  Sometimes, Juan Diego seems to be a stand-in for Irving; Juan Diego has written a novel in which an orphan performs abortions (like The Cider House Rules) and a circus novel set in India (like A Son of the Circus).

We’ve all hear it said that life is a highway.  Irving’s theme is that life is an avenue of mysterious miraculousness:  “The chain of events, the links in our lives – what leads us where we’re going, the courses we follow to our ends, what we don’t see coming, and what we do – all this can be mysterious, or simply unseen, or even obvious” (382).   Life is full of mysteries that cannot be fully understood: “Maybe . . . the way the world worked was ‘somewhere in between’ coincidence and fate.  There were mysteries Juan Diego knew; not everything came with a scientific explanation” (334), but “These mysteries were what Juan Diego was part of” (428).  Juan Diego even admits that “’Miriam and Dorothy are just mysteries to me’” (287).  Again, there are similarities with A Prayer for Owen Meany.  At the end of Irving’s seventh novel, John Wheelright  is left with the memory of his friend and a belief that Owen and his life were a miracle; in Irving’s fourteenth novel, Juan Diego concludes, “And wasn’t Lupe herself the major miracle?  What she had known, what she had risked . . . ” (428).

Like Irving’s other novels, this one has both tragedy and comedy.  There are chapters that will have the reader laughing out loud (“Two Condoms”) and others that will have him/her both crying and cheering (“Act 5, Scene 3”).  I did find, however, that I had less interest in the middle-aged Juan Diego; I was much more fascinated by the flashbacks to his life with Lupe.

I really looked forward to reading another John Irving novel.  Unfortunately, I found the plot and characters and themes very similar to those encountered in previous of Irving’s novels.  A walk through Avenue of Mysteries felt like a walk through Irving’s earlier books.  It is not just Juan Diego who lives in the past.