Avenue of Mysteries

By John Irving

(Simon & Schuster, $28, 480 pages)

Who is this author?

John Irving’s debut novel, Setting Free the Bears, appeared in 1968 and he has now published 14 highly imaginative novels in total. Best known is The World According to Garp, which won the National Book Award in 1980 and became a major motion picture. Other best sellers include A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Cider House Rules and The Hotel New Hampshire. Not only is Irving a much honored author: in 1992, he was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

What is this book about?

It’s a dreamy, magical-realist look at creativity, employing many of Irving’s favorite and iconic subjects: orphans, the circus, transvestites, paranormal powers, the Catholic church and sex. In it, an aging, successful writer who grew up in a Mexican dump with a sister who can see the future and interpret the past (but not always correctly) makes a trip to the Philippines, where a mysterious mother and daughter inspire his lust and serve as his guides. Juan Diego Guerrero as a boy taught himself to read and write from discarded books; now he is looking back at his long life and literary accomplishments and trying to teach himself what it all really means.

Why you’ll like it:

Like Garp, which for good or ill spawned the instantly clichéd and sadly overworked “world according to…” phrase, Avenue of Mysteries is written with humor, deft lyricism and deep dives into the spiritual. Fortunately for the reader, the humor leavens the more challenging aspects of this complex novel. Reviewers are calling Irving’s latest book a return to his earlier mastery, and that is good news indeed.

What others are saying:          

Amazon.com Review calls it an Amazon Best Book of November 2015: Juan Diego got his start in a Oaxacan dump, where he and his sister were self-described “dump kids.” Their mother Esperanza was a prostitute/cleaning woman, and in Avenue of Mysteries we revisit Esperanza, a pair of Jesuits who affected Juan Diego’s life, various circus members, Juan Diego, his sister, and others in a series of flashbacks. Having salvaged books in English and Spanish from the dump, Juan Diego taught himself to read and, ultimately, to write—he becomes a successful author, who eventually winds up in Iowa. Now in his fifties, he takes a trip to the Philippines, where he encounters a mother and her daughter, both of them fans, who insist on taking him around. If you’re a John Irving fan, some of the details to the story will sound familiar. It’s also likely you won’t have a problem with that. What I found most satisfying about Irving’s latest novel was a return of the feelings I remember from back when I first discovered his writing. This is an immersive read that delivers character, humor, and emotion.”

Publishers Weekly says: “Irving’s latest depicts Juan Diego, an aging novelist on a pilgrimage to the Philippines and set on fulfilling a promise he made in his childhood to a dying friend. Juan Diego was a “dump kid,” living with his sister, Lupe, in a shack in Mexico among the families who sort refuse for anything of value. But Juan Diego was exceptional, a self-taught reader who seemed fated for more. Through vivid dreams that Juan Diego has as a result of becoming confused about his medication while on a meandering journey to Manila, Irving relates his escape from his humble childhood. Irving fans will recognize similarities with past work: a circus, ambiguous parentage, a child with supernatural powers, various Christian churches, and a transvestite all play major roles. But while these elements may appear recycled, the protagonist’s journey does feel new. Diehard Irving fans will likely enjoy this latest, but those without such loyalties might be better served reading (or rereading) A Prayer for Owen Meany.”

Library Journal’s starred review says: “Successful novelist Juan Diego Guerrero is traveling to the Philippines to fulfill a long-ago promise. On his journey, he is taken under the wing of a mysterious mother and daughter, who seem to appear and disappear at opportune times and manipulate his actions. Perhaps owing to his misuse of his beta-blocker prescription, Juan Diego is haunted by memories of his childhood in Oaxaca, Mexico, and his sister Lupe, who can read minds and predict the future (though not always accurately), and who speaks a strange gibberish that only he can understand. Irving’s 14th novel contains many of the ingredients his fans have come to expect: an intricate plot, troubled and quirky but lovable characters, and an examination of social issues that arises naturally without coming across as didactic. An orphanage, a circus, a transvestite, and Iowa City also make appearances. The “mysteries” in the title refer primarily to the religious sense of the word, particularly as manifested in miracles and visions of the Virgin Mary. Irving also makes sly winks at his own oeuvre and his life as a novelist, while taking a stand on the place of imagination in fiction.”

Says Kirkus Reviews:  “Sex, drugs, and mariachi: Irving’s latest ventures south of the border and then back again, tracing the long road and unforeseeable turns that we travel in this world. The sex is constant—at least the desire for it is. (“Juan Diego had noticed that Miriam’s breasts were also attractive, though her nipples were not visible through her sweater.”) The drugs: well, do Lopressor and Viagra count? And as for the mariachi, it’s the soundtrack to a long dream in which “it was impossible to tell where the music came from.” When you come to think of it, life itself is pretty much an avenue of mysteries, though, per Irving, not without its comedy in the midst of tragedy and disappointment. Juan Diego, whose very name invokes the first saint of the Americas, has had an eventful journey over half a century from the landfills of Guerrero to Iowa and literary renown; now an accomplished writer, he nears the end of that journey in a faraway city, drifting in and out of a long dream in which he retraces his steps. Or, perhaps, a step and a limp, for, in good Greek tragic mode, Juan Diego nurses a crushed foot that reminds him of the receding past with every ache. Now in Manila, a place that shares the English and Spanish halves of Juan Diego’s self but adds its own exotic element, Juan Diego confronts his mortality while puzzling out questions of a theological and much more earthly nature: the mother-and-daughter team that he lusts for over 500-odd pages, for instance, may be more than ordinary mortals, just as everyone Juan Diego has met may be angels or devils in disguise. Irving works his familiar themes—Catholicism, sex, death—with a light and assured touch, and though the dream-narrative construct is a little shelf-worn, it serves the story well. Though not as irresistible as early works, such as The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire, a welcome return to form.”

“Juan Diego’s memories of adolescence around 1970 in Oaxaca compose some of the most charming scenes that Irving has ever written. He’s still an unparalleled choreographer of outrageous calamities that exist somewhere between coincidence and fate…. Those conflicting currents of spirituality flowing through “Avenue of Mysteries” add to Irving’s rich exploration of faith in several earlier novels,” says the Washington Post.”

Says Bookpage:  “In its early pages especially, Avenue of Mysteries is laugh-out-loud funny…. Yet as funny as the new novel often is, Irving’s reconsideration of earlier themes seems more somber here. The novel explores questions of belief and disillusionment, chance and choice, the mundane and the miraculous. Avenue of Mysteries is a provocative and perplexing novel.”

The Boston Globe says: “Irving has always been a consummately convincing realist, in matters both great and small…. While writers of later generations seldom come close to achieving Irving’s levels of verisimilitude, his realism is transmogrified by his general whimsicality and by his attraction to baroque extrapolations of the absurd. This sort of ambition… is part of what makes Irving such a prodigious entertainer…. This novel is not autobiographical, but it does present an aging artist with a sacred wound, tremendous desire, and an endless appetite for wonder.”

When is it available?

No mystery: the Camp Field and Park branches of the Hartford Public Library have copies of this book.

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