Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving
Age cannot diminish nor practice stale the writing power of John Irving. In Avenue of Mysteries, his fourteenth novel, we see the full display of his authoritative voice. Humor and pathos are wrapped around thoughtful discussions of the place of religion in one’s life, of how to write and how much one’s personal life may be reflected in writing, the effect of foreshadowing, fate, and real people versus the imagination.
Juan Diego Guerrero was a dump kid (un niño de la basura) in Oaxaca, Mexico, who has grown up to be a successful and moderately famous writer. Now in his early fifties, he is retired from teaching and is working on another novel. He lives two parallel lives. The first is his Mexican childhood and adolescence; the second, his life as a Midwestern American. The two lives are separate but the two worlds are repeatedly intersecting as his thoughts segue seamlessly from one to the other. He lives and operates in the present, but the slightest action or deviation from his medicines can trigger his memory and take him back to his days in the city dump. “Time jumped ahead or back; time seemed more associative than linear, but it wasn’t exclusively associative, either.” Life and memories continue to collide.
As a teenager, Juan Diego promised the good gringo, a draft evader whose name he never got, that he would go to the Philippines and pay homage to the gringo’s father who had been killed in the Vietnam War. Not knowing the name presents obvious difficulties which Irving uses to comic effect and as a device to illustrate Juan Diego’s perseverance in completing a promise to a friend and as a means to examine the issue of who we are. The narrative is the oft-told tale of a child who overcomes adversity but is never able to escape the memories. Juan Diego continues “reliving in his imagination, the losses that marked him.”
Irving fills the basics with so much more. Wonderful, fully formed characters inhabit this extraordinary novel. Lupe, Juan Diego’s sister, can read minds but her speech can only be understood by him. El Jefe, who may be their father but is definitely their protector in the dump, backs his truck over Juan Diego’s foot, crippling him for life. Brother Pepe is a Jesuit priest who brings books to Juan Diego so that he can teach himself to read and speak English. Juan Diego is adopted into the circus and later by Edward Bonshaw, a would-be Jesuit priest, and Flor, a male cross dresser, and taken to America. He continues to meet characters who influence his life and trigger his memories.
The Avenue of Mysteries, Avenida de los Misterios, is the approach to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. The question of whether this shrine is also a shrine to the Virgin Mary figures prominently as does the “Streets of Laredo” or, as it is also known, “Cowboy’s Lament.” These provide avenues that Juan Diego must travel in order to determine how the dump child became the writer he is today and provide a means for Irving to explore the place of religion in one’s life, the importance of fate and faith or lack of faith.
Once again John Irving has created a magical narrative that is elegant and thoughtful in its basic story. Into this, as he so often does, he features an orphanage, a circus, an absent father, a prostitute, and a writer who wrestles with the juxtaposition between his present life and the life of his memories. These “things” are not just there; they are present because they reflect and enhance crucial elements of the narrative. Irving has taken his time-tested images and woven them into a fresh and entertaining novel that must not be missed.