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 firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.