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Avenue of Mysteries


Avenue of Mysteries

John Irving is one of America’s most notable and memorable fiction writers, having created characters that are imprinted in the literary landscape, such as Owen Meany, Garp and his transgender mother, Jenny Fields. Prescient characters like Franny and her cautionary warning from THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE, “Don’t walk past the open windows,occur throughout his body of work, creating well-placed foreshadowing of events --- often ominous, sometimes hilarious --- to come.

Irving regularly dwells on whimsical themes, but AVENUE OF MYSTERIES may be the first to tread less than lightly into the realm of magical realism. This is due in part to the locale of the reflective portions of his childhood that begin at the roots of that genre in Latin America. This is where Juan Diego and his clairvoyant sister, Lupe, begin their formative years as dump kids in 1970s Oaxaca, Mexico. 

"AVENUE OF MYSTERIES could serve as a master class of Irving’s writing. He tackles every writing style raised as a bugaboo to any beginning writer."

Juan Diego and Lupe are among the hundreds of homeless children who collect scrap metals for el jefe, the dump boss. The 14-year-old boy also retrieves charred books from the smoking pyres, which he reads voraciously, reclining on a decaying couch in the guard shack overseen by el jefe, who may or may not be their father. They befriend American Vietnam draft dodgers and drug addicts and see their mother, a housekeeper at the nearby Catholic church by day and streetwalker by night, only sporadically. Juan Diego’s reading skills come to the attention of Brother Pepe, a Jesuit priest from the local orphanage who supplies him with more books.

Lupe’s psychic abilities foresee a grim future for Juan Diego, and she takes it upon herself to see that her brother finds a better future. Her intervention leads to the adoption by a visiting priest from Iowa, who takes him to a university town where he grows up to become a popular professor and author. One of the addicted draft dodgers from the Oaxaca dump, the “good gringo,” beseeches Juan Diego that if he ever gets out of there to visit his father’s grave in the Philippines where he was buried during World War II. This promise becomes a central theme of the book, leading him to a trip of wonder as he mistakenly confuses prescription medications, leading to a tragicomedy of events.  

At age 54, Juan Diego is a popular author and accepts an invitation by a former student to lecture in Manilla. A dangerous mix-up of beta blockers and Viagra leads Juan Diego, who never lacked for a vivid imagination, to reminisce about his traumatic childhood. From the airplane, restaurants and his motel room, he enjoys frequent mysterious and erotic visitations by two beautiful women who float in and out of his agitated dreams on his journey to and around the Philippines. This is John Irving, so naturally there had to be some sex involved, right?

AVENUE OF MYSTERIES could serve as a master class of Irving’s writing. He tackles every writing style raised as a bugaboo to any beginning writer. Flashbacks: confusing unless handled with exquisite care. Foreign names and language references: annoying unless  mercifully translated. Foreshadowing: clunky and confusing in the wrong hands. Perhaps Irving’s best tricks of the trade are his vivid characterizations sans caricature. He professes to living a mundane, even boring, life, but when he writes, he dwells in the imaginary realm of “What if?” then “How could this go wrong?” followed by “How could this go horribly wrong?” for inspiration.

You expect to encounter the inevitable Irving markers, such as his disdain for the Roman Catholic Church and its inflexibility. Homosexuals and transvestites are also recurring themes --- and, of course, bears. No bears here, but El Hombre, a circus lion, plays a major role. These minable treasures are what make Irving who he is. Yet his genius is that his characters are so compellingly unique that they live indelibly in our memories. Lesser writers may try to emulate but can only imitate.

Reviewed by Roz Shea on November 12, 2015

Avenue of Mysteries
by John Irving

  • Publication Date: June 7, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1451664176
  • ISBN-13: 9781451664171