Avenue of Mysteries, John Irving’s newest novel, spins two remarkable tales, both about the central character, Juan Diego.
The 54-year-old Juan Diego is a successful international novelist who has lived in Iowa his entire adult life. At the start of the novel, he is embarking on a trip to the Philippines, making good on a promise from his past to visit the grave of the father of a young, draft-dodging hippie, the good gringo who played a significant role in Juan Diego’s childhood.
Juan Diego is not in the best of health. He is disabled, with a limp he has had since he was 14. He also has very high blood pressure and relies on beta blockers to slow his pulse; the medication tires him and makes him feel “diminished.” He wishes he felt “more alive.”
What are not in the least bit diminished, however, are Juan Diego’s memories of his childhood, and those first 14 years of his life make up the second story in the novel.
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Juan Diego grew up in Oaxaca, Mexico, in a small colony called Guerrero, with just 10 families. Guerrero was the city dump, and the people who lived there also worked there, building their shacks from the refuse. Juan Diego and his younger sister, Lupe, were dump kids, living with the dump boss, Rivera, who was “not exactly” their father.
Both kids were highly unusual. Juan Diego had taught himself to read, in both Spanish and English, first rescuing books deemed too old or unreadable by the local Jesuits, and then reading books brought to him by Brother Pepe, a Jesuit teacher who took an interest in the two children.
Lupe was a mind-reader and there was something strange about her speech, which didn’t even sound like Spanish. Juan Diego was the only one who could understand her, and he played the role of her interpreter.
The simultaneous narratives begin as Juan Diego’s Philippine-bound plane is delayed by a snowstorm in New York City. His beta blockers, unfortunately, are in his checked luggage, and so he goes without them for two days, causing the novelist with the active imagination to become somewhat disconnected from reality.
As the trip goes on, and more poor decisions are made concerning his medication, the memories of Juan Diego’s remarkable childhood become increasingly clear in his many and vivid dreams, while the present-day events develop a dreamlike, untrustworthy quality, as he meets a mother-daughter duo and reconnects with a former student who is also now a novelist.
Built onto this relatively simple architectural plot structure is a richly detailed, imaginative and beautiful novel, with a series of events that seem equally bizarre and resoundingly universal. The novel’s broad themes will be familiar to fans of John Irving, including fate and faith, religion and especially the Roman Catholic Church, sex, love, and death. There are other familiar Irving elements, including a circus, children unsure of who their parents are and a transgendered person.
At the heart of the novel are, of course, the characters of Juan Diego and Lupe, whose connection goes beyond their unique ability to communicate. This is a story about love and sacrifice, and it is also a story about two poor kids in Mexico and the mixed-bag reality that opportunity is for them.
On his Facebook page, Irving wrote in June 2013 in response to a reader about the origins of this book, which is an adaptation of a screenplay he worked on with director Martin Bell — also the basis of Irving’s novel A Son of the Circus:
“Can you follow me? First there was an original screenplay; it was adapted into a novel, A Son of the Circus. Then I revised that original screenplay — again and again, until it wasn’t even taking place in India. … You may think that 23 years is a long time to be revising anything, but good writing is about rewriting, and the real background to the writing of the two novels (A Son of the Circus and Avenue of Mysteries) is about my friendship with Martin Bell, the director. I have traveled with Martin in India and Mexico. … And if we ever get to make this movie (whichever movie it is), we will make it together.”
Avenue of Mysteries is Irving’s 14th novel. His most famous works include The World According to Garp (1978), The Cider House Rules (1985) and his biggest seller, A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), which featured a character who, like Juan Diego, feels fated: “An aura of fate had marked [Juan Diego]. He moved slowly; he often appeared to be lost in thought, or in his imagination — as if his future were predetermined, and he wasn’t resisting it.”
Those tempted to see similarities between the character of novelist Juan Diego and 73-year-old novelist Irving may want to view Random House Canada’s Oct. 9 trailer, also on Facebook, in which Irving says: “I do not write about myself, not even myself as a writer, not nearly as much as I write about what I’m afraid of, what I fear. The most autobiographical element in my fiction is that I consistently write about what I hope never happens to me or anyone I love.”
Like his other novels, Avenue of Mysteries is a big book, this one at 460 pages. Like his other novels, too, it is what you might call compulsively readable, with a steadily moving narrative, a cast of interesting and oddball characters, and settings that transport the reader from Mexico to Manila, including a pilgrimage to Mexico City’s Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe on the Avenue of Mysteries.
It is a complex and many-layered novel that covers a lot of intellectual, moral and emotional ground, but in the end, it is the simplest, saddest and most wonderful tale of the human condition. It is about what we all fear: finding people to love, and then losing them, too.
Avenue of Mysteries
- By John Irving
- Simon & Schuster, $28
- Audio: Simon & Schuster Audio, $49.99; narrated by actor Armando Duran.