AVENUE OF MYSTERIES (2015)
By John Irving
Simon & Schuster, 440 pages
* * * *
In Slaughterhouse-Five Kurt Vonnegut wrote the memorable line, "Billy Pilgrim became unstuck in time." That's also the fate of Juan Diego Guerrero in John Irving's latest novel, Avenue of Mysteries. He's a 54-year-old famous novelist winging his way to the Philippines, but his past and present have become so intertwined that he's not entirely certain about the latter and neither should you, the reader, necessarily hew to literal readings of the here and now. The past appears in sharper detail, but it too skirts the borders between the real, surreal, miraculous, and imagined.
Forty years earlier, voracious reader Juan Diego was among los niños de la basura, a resident of Oaxaca's city dump. He is a club-footed fourteen when we meet him, and lives with his 13-year-old sister, Lupe, also prescient, though only Juan Diego can understand what she's saying. Their mother Esperanza, is a devout Catholic who also happens to be a prostitute. They sometimes live with Rivera, who is the boss of the dump, and perhaps the father of both children and their benefactor. Juan Diego's world is defined by priests, nuns, and street people; his daily routine by scavenging, hustling, hanging out with a drug-addled American hippie avoiding the Vietnam War, and rescuing discarded books about to be burned in the dump along with garbage, dead dogs, and the occasional corpse. Juan Diego reads everything–from discarded tomes of theology to pulp fiction–and has become as proficient in English as he is in Spanish and whatever odd dialect Lupe speaks. Are both children milagros (miracles), as some local Jesuits suspect, or just precocious kids with poor life chances made worse when Esperanza dies dusting La Virgen de la Soledad?
If you know anything about John Irving, you know he is a skilled plotsman and nothing is ever thrown away. Juan Diego is named for the Mexico City peasant boy to whom the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared in 1531. His sister is named for the Virgin of Guadalupe, the darker-skinned form Mary supposedly took in 1531. There's also another character named Soledad, and two others– novitiate Edward "Eduardo" Bonshaw and novelist Clark French, Juan Diego's former protégé–that share a penchant for austere Catholicism (though Eduardo transforms and Clark never does). Juan Diego's journey toward world citizenship begins with the deaths of Esperanza and the American hippie, and his sister's insistence that their mother's demise was at the intervention of "Monster Mary," her name for Soledad. (Lupe is devoted to Guadalupe, and her revenge on Monster Mary is unique, to say the least.) Both children are sent off to the local circus, the best fate the Jesuits can imagine for dump kids. Lupe can read minds and interpret the past with great accuracy, though her predictive skills are less reliable. Since only Juan Diego can interpret what she says, he goes as well. So let's add some dwarfs, aerial artists, dog trainers, a transvestite, and a pedophile lion tamer to the mix, shall we?
If it already sounds like too much, before we're through we'll also get an Iowa coming-of-age, gay parents, AIDS, novel plots within the novel, heart troubles, and that trip to the Philippines—made simply because of a promise 14-year-old Juan Diego made to the dying hippie. On the trip Juan Diego sleeps with Miriam and Dorothy, a mother-daughter combo. Or does he? Are they real? Succubi? Hallucinations from drug misuse?
It's important to remember that few authors this side of Dickens are such expert craftsmen. This is to say that most things will make some sort of sense if you stay with them. Avenue of Mysteries is sprawling and, at times a bit over the top. Irving certainly opens himself to charges of being a 74-year-old with the sensibilities of a horny adolescent, but I applaud him for trying something different. He's also vulnerable to the criticism of being another gringo aiming for magical realism and falling a bit short, but I'm seldom bothered by ambiguity and I think those critics miss the idea that his character, Juan Diego, wishes to dispel expectations of what a Mexican writer is like. In many ways, Avenue of Mysteries* is a musing on rationalism and faith, desire and duty, and body and spirit. I've yet to run across someone who has resolved these–and that includes the Catholic Church! I see this book as the successful realization of Irving's 1994 A Son of the Circus, which he thought brilliant and most of the reading public found a failed, unfathomable mess. Call this one a Mexican Junkyard Dog with more depth.
*The title refers to a Mexico City street leading up to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Lupe venerates her, but is appalled by the commercialism, misguided faith, and hucksterism associated with the basilica. I've not been there, but this is exactly what I felt when visiting Fatima, Portugal—simply one of the least sacred places I've ever had the displeasure of seeing.