Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving
“Juan Diego doesn’t live with anyone. This allows him to live in his imagination all the time. No wife, no children, too much imagination—this is a dangerous combination. A prescription for a lonely and a fantasy-consumed life.” So says John Irving in one of the three trailers for Avenue of Mysteries, his fourteenth novel.
John Irving’s books spoke to me more when I was younger. This is probably in part because he writes the types of stories that tend to resonate with young men and in part because the novels at the peak of his career—The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Cider House Rules—are masterful stories, modern classics. The third act of his career—I would say after Until I Find You (2005)—has been less consistent. His previous three novels before Avenue of Mysteries all checked so many of the “John Irving Boxes” (his Wikipedia page used to literally have a chart that kept track of repeated elements) that they seemed just different versions of the same story. Avenue of Mysteries has its fair share of familiar elements, but it’s most closely related to Son of the Circus, an outlier in its own right.
Avenue of Mysteries tells two parallel stories. The first is of 14-year-old Juan Diego and his sister Lupe, growing up at the dump in Oaxaca, Mexico. The second is of 54-year-old Juan Diego on a trip to the Philippines. In the story of the children, many of the plot elements are familiar. The strength of that section is the Lupe character—a child with the power to read minds and, less accurately, tell the future, but whose speech is a form of gibberish that only Juan Diego can translate.
In the story of the 54-year-old Juan Diego, he is an author (another common Irving element) and is taking medication that causes him to sleep often and live in a dreamlike world. It’s this medication plus Juan Diego’s active imagination that allows the story to slide back and forth between the present and the past. It’s also the medication that allows for the introduction of the most interesting element of the story—some magical realism. It’s a natural part of the story, with its heritage in Mexican writing. The magical realism also works hardest to make this book unique from Irving’s other novels and is the most interesting part of the story. Characters are introduced who, although flat in terms of development, become more and more interesting as we pick up clues that there might be more (or less) to them than we first thought.
Irving’s greatest strength (and I’m sure I’ve written this in a review before) is not just in developing his characters, but in finishing them off. Even those characters I feel unattached to have an ability to tug on some emotions when it comes time to say goodbye. Such is Juan Diego. Not a great character, but the end of his story is poignant nonetheless.
I would add that I found the redundant nature of Irving’s writing bothersome, but I think I’ve said that about the last few of his novels as well. It’s his style, and it’s very deliberate (I would say too deliberate). His third novel, The 158-Pound Marriage (1974), is the only one I haven’t read. When I do, I imagine I’ll see that he was writing with the same redundancies back then.
Irving’s writing has meant so much to me over the years, but I would unfortunately put this on the bottom half of the list. Definitely not where I’d start in the Irving canon. But as long as he keeps turning out novels, I’ll keep reading them.