Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Books

Review: John Irving's 'Avenue of Mysteries' full of fascinating surprises

Juan Diego Guerrero misses his nightmares.

By day, Juan Diego, the protagonist of John Irving's new novel Avenue of Mysteries, is a noted novelist and a faculty member at the prestigious writing program at the University of Iowa, a man with a productive but quiet life.

By night, in his dreams, he relives his childhood as un nino de la basura — a scavenger or "dump kid" — in Guerrero, a tiny town adjacent to the massive city dump of Oaxaca, Mexico. Some of his dreams are nightmares, like the one about the accident that resulted in the severe limp he still has. Others, like the one about walking upside down across the sky, are miraculous. And most of them — the ones about his sister, his mother, his probable father and a vivid cast of Jesuit priests, transvestite prostitutes, Vietnam-era draft dodgers, circus performers and a trio of sacred mothers — bring him close to those he loved most and has lost forever.

As Avenue of Mysteries opens, the grownup Juan Diego has stopped dreaming. He's only in his mid 50s, but his health isn't great, and his doctor has put him on beta-blockers because she fears he's vulnerable to heart attack. When he complains that the drugs have not only erased his dreams but left him feeling "diminished," she also prescribes Viagra.

Not that he has any immediate need for it; although his novels are full of all kinds of sex, his own sex life has been both limited and genteel, and at the moment is nonexistent.

That's about to change. The adult Juan Diego embarks on a trip to the Philippines that is both a professional book tour and a personal mission. Aboard his long flight, he meets a mother and daughter, Miriam and Dorothy, who will not only take over his travel itinerary but turn his world upside down. As they take turns getting into his bed and inside his head, he juggles his two medications to try to be ready for his new adventures. It's a dangerous game, but his dreams return.

As interesting (and mysterious) as Miriam and Dorothy are, Juan Diego's past is the truly fascinating part of Avenue of Mysteries. That makes sense, since the author tells us that it's important to know where a story "came from." And even though Juan Diego has never written a book set in Mexico, it's clear his childhood is the well of his imagination — and what a well.

The novel flows back and forth between past and present as Juan Diego dreams and wakes. In the past, he's always about 14 years old, a crucial year. He lives in a shack at the dump with a man known only as Rivera, who might be his father, and his 13-year-old sister, Lupe:

"Lupe's language was incomprehensible — what came out of her mouth didn't even sound like Spanish. Only Juan Diego could understand her; he was his sister's translator, her interpreter. And Lupe's strange speech was not the most mysterious thing about her; the girl was a mind reader. Lupe knew what you were thinking — occasionally, she knew more about you than that."

The siblings are named after Our Lady of Guadalupe, the vision of the Virgin Mary (maybe) who appeared in Mexico in 1531 and became a symbol of the nation, and the Indian who saw her and became the first American saint. Visions happen in Irving's modern Mexico (and Philippines) as well. Statues of conquistadors rattle their swords, ghosts take showers and religious icons strike the living dead.

To the combative Lupe (hearing other people's thoughts all the time makes her quite cranky), it's clear her namesake is not an avatar of the Catholic Virgin but a divinity of a different tradition: "Los ninos de la basura were born to Indians in the New World, but they also had Spanish blood; this made them (in their eyes) the conquistadors' bastard children." As Lupe says, "Guadalupe was our virgin, but the Catholics stole her; they made her the Virgin Mary's dark-skinned servant."

She sees the two as enemies whose power is represented in the local church, which displays a small image of Guadalupe and a much-larger-than-life-size, fair-skinned Virgin that Lupe calls the Mary Monster. When the girl starts carrying around a figurine of the Aztec mother goddess Coatlicue, who wears a skirt of snakes and has nipples made of rattlesnake rattles, things get really complicated.

Guadalupe's status is a touchy subject for Lupe in part because Esperanza, the siblings' mother, is a servant as well, a cleaning lady for the local Jesuits and, at night, a prostitute. Lupe makes her brother swear that if she ever ends up in the latter profession, he'll kill her. But she also has plans for him. He becomes known around town as the "dump reader," a boy so enamored of learning that he literally pulls books from the flames of trash heaps and teaches himself to read. The two move from Rivera's care to Lost Children, the orphanage run by the Jesuits, where their lives will take a series of astonishing, hilarious and tragic turns.

Longtime fans of Irving's novels can check off many of his recurring motifs: orphans, dogs, strong women, transvestites, Catholicism, abortion, circuses and, of course, writers as characters. There are only passing mentions of wrestling, though, and nary a bear — although there are four lions who are pivotal to the plot.

There are also shoutouts to many of Irving's influences, including Shakespeare and Twain. But the whole novel, with its Latin American settings, its pervasive magic realism and its slightly formal, incantatory style, seems like a nod to another of the greats, Gabriel García Márquez, whose One Hundred Years of Solitude Irving recently included on a "top ten novels" list.

But Avenue of Mysteries is entirely Irving's, his best novel since the years of The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Like Lupe and Juan Diego's quest to visit Guadalupe's shrine, it has an ending you may anticipate —but the journey is full of richly imagined surprises.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Comments
5 fiction writers who've turned their attention to Donald Trump

5 fiction writers who've turned their attention to Donald Trump

He might not have intended it, but Donald Trump has been good for book publishing.
Published: 06/15/18
What’s Neal Thompson, author of ‘Kickflip Boys,’ reading?

What’s Neal Thompson, author of ‘Kickflip Boys,’ reading?

Neal ThompsonFor Father’s Day, we checked in with Neal Thompson from his Seattle office. In his new book, Kickflip Boys, Thompson weaves together a story on raising his two independent, passionate sons while giving us an honest look at the underbelly...
Published: 06/15/18
What is Jen Waite, author of the memoir

What is Jen Waite, author of the memoir "A Beautiful, Terrible Thing," reading?

Jen Waite It is June. Romance and weddings are in the air, and with that comes the paperback release of A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal by Jen Waite, 33. The book, based on Waite’s heartbreaking wedding story, fi...
Published: 06/07/18
Review: Jake Tapper’s ‘Hellfire Club’ a fictional thriller sharpened with real 1950s politics

Review: Jake Tapper’s ‘Hellfire Club’ a fictional thriller sharpened with real 1950s politics

Washington, D.C., is a city in crisis, the operations of the federal government all but paralyzed by the conspiracy theories of a powerful politician who behaves as if the bounds of protocol and decency don’t apply to him. As he distracts the nation,...
Published: 06/06/18
What’s Helen Rappaport reading?

What’s Helen Rappaport reading?

Helen RappaportWhile delving into archives and researching her new book about the murder of the Russian imperial family 100 years ago, The Race to Save the Romanovs, Rappaport celebrated the digital age. "I am able to go back so far in time and look ...
Updated one month ago
Review: Lauren Groff’s ‘Florida’ explores a state beyond the boundaries

Review: Lauren Groff’s ‘Florida’ explores a state beyond the boundaries

In "Flower Hunters," one of the stories in Lauren Groff’s stunning new book Florida, a character gets a reader’s crush on 18th century explorer William Bartram, an early chronicler of the state’s flora and fauna: "She’s most d...
Updated one month ago
Notable: Books for the beach

Notable: Books for the beach

NotableBooks for the beachSuit up: It’s time for a few new books built for vacation reading.By Invitation Only (William Morrow) by Dorothea Benton Frank is the latest serving of Frank’s trademark warm humor and engaging characters, set around two wed...
Updated one month ago
Judy Blundell brings on summertime on Long Island in ‘High Season’

Judy Blundell brings on summertime on Long Island in ‘High Season’

NightstandJudy BlundellSince it’s Memorial Day weekend, we decided to touch base with Judy Blundell, whose new book is High Season. The novel’s protagonist is Ruthie Beamish, director of a small museum who, to make ends meet, rents out her seaside ho...
Updated one month ago

Events: Pulitzer winner Jack Davis to discuss ‘The Gulf’ at Oxford Exchange

Book TalkUniversity of Florida historian Jack E. Davis (The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea) will discuss and sign his Pulitzer Prize-winning book at 1 p.m. May 27 at the Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Admission $5, applicable towar...
Updated one month ago
Review: Family matters in David Sedaris’ ‘Calypso’

Review: Family matters in David Sedaris’ ‘Calypso’

David Sedaris gets right to the point in the opening of the first essay in his new book, Calypso: "Though there’s an industry built on telling you otherwise, there are few real joys to middle age. The only perk I can see is that, with luck, you’ll ac...
Updated one month ago