Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving

“Some unexplainable things are real.”

After finishing John Irving’s latest, Avenue of Mysteries, I’m left wondering, did Irving want us to read more deeply into particular elements of the story (notably the power-play between two Virgins {Mary and Guadalupe}, and a vaguely threatening mother-daughter team) or was the whole thing pure Irving folly?

I’m going with the later because fans will know they’re dealing with hallmark Irving – circuses, transvestites, the importance of reading, prostitutes, the meaning of faith and absentee mothers.

The story is about a boy, Juan Diego, and his sister, Lupe. They grow up in a basurero (Mexican rubbish dump), their mother is a cleaner in a Jesuit orphanage by day and a prostitute by night (see, I told you it was Irving to the power of a million). Their father is unknown. Lupe is a mind reader and thinks she sees what’s coming—specifically, her own future and her brother’s. Fast forward fifty years and Juan Diego, now a celebrated author, travels to the Philippines, on a pilgrimage of sorts.

“In truth, it was not belief that Juan Diego lacked. Most dump kids are seekers of miracles. At least Juan Diego wanted to believe in the miraculous, in all sorts of inexplicable mysteries, even if he doubted the miracles the Church wanted everyone to believe – those preexisting miracles, the ones dulled by time.”

The joy in reading Avenue of Mysteries was not in the overarching plot (which at times was vast and unwieldy), but in the character detail. For it’s in the detail that Irving does what I have come to expect – using extraordinary circumstances to shape his characters. In Avenue, we have Edward, the Hawaiian-shirt-wearing Iowaian Jesuit who has an L-shaped scar on his forehead made by a childhood accident with a mah-jong tile; Edward falls in love with Flor, a transgender Mexican; there’s Vargas, an arrogant doctor whose story has a charming postscript about lions and rabies; and a marvelously thought-out collection of dogs (Dirty White, I miss you already and Beatrice… oh, Beatrice, you made me cry) – I could go on and on because there are dozens more. Weeks after finishing the book, it’s these characters that I’m still thinking about.

“As a graduate student, Clark French had needed defending, and Juan Diego had defended him. The young writer was unfashionably ebullient, an ever-optimistic presence; it wasn’t only his writing that suffered from an overuse of exclamation points.”

Irving has a knack for creating farcical situations that I honestly wouldn’t tolerate from other authors (my love affair with these elements of his stories began with the stuffed dog and the hairdryer in Hotel New Hampshire). Avenue has some equally eccentric scenes – there’s a gecko and a fork; a water buffalo with something in its nose; and when a shower stall collapses, startling a nearby elephant which leads to an immovable dead horse, it seems completely plausible.

A particular highlight in this book was the wry dialogue between mother-daughter team, Miriam and Dorothy –

“And you – you two – are going where?” Juan Diego ventured to ask the mother and her daughter, who were veteran world travelers (clearly).
“Oh boy – have we got shit to do!” Dorothy said darkly.
“Obligations, Dorothy – your generation overuses the shit word,” Miriam told her.

There were two significant exceptions to trademark Irving in Avenue of Mysteries – no bears (but we got dogs and lions) and no New England (or Vienna). And I missed that. Because although Irving paints a remarkable and vivid picture of the basurero, I do love the coast of Maine, the autumn leaves of New Hampshire. But in Avenue, he has given us some superb and memorable characters – particularly Lupe – who will sit comfortably alongside his very best.

4/5 Relish the detail.

I received my copy of Avenue of Mysteries from the publisher, Random House UK, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

It’s all about mezcal (described in the story as “poor man’s tequila”).


13 responses

  1. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a new John Irving book, and I’m on the fence about this one. I tend to enjoy his language more than his plots, but that’s okay. Your review has given me something to think about — thanks!

    • I’m a complete Irving-devotee – but not blinded by everything he writes. I didn’t love his last book (In One Person) and The Fourth Hand was not my cup of tea either. But of his more recent books, Last Night in Twisted River is superb (and one of my favourites of all his books) and this one, although very different has Lupe (and it’s worth reading for her alone).

      • Good to know! I think the last new book by him that I read was A Widow for One Year, so it’s really been a while. I might start with Last Night in Twisted River, which I’ve heard a few people recommend so far.

  2. Your review brought up good points I failed to think about. I felt frustrated reading this one and may have missed significant points as a result.

    Thanks for commenting and leading me to your thoughts on Irvings latest book.

    • There were sections that I didn’t like as much – certainly the ‘magic realism’ elements that the formal reviews seem to be focusing on, are not my usual thing. But the parts set in Mexico were beautifully written and I think true to his style.

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  4. You have made me feel better about reading this. It is sitting on my kindly because I’d heard such overwhelming negativity and I’m wary of picking it up.

    • There were sections I wasn’t mad about but, true to form, I focus on the good. And the good was very, very good. It took me a bit to get over the fact that there was no New England but once I let it go, I was completely absorbed.

      If you have the time and energy, look up the two reviews of this book in the New York Times – one was by a woman, one by a man. One cans the book, the other loves it. There were elements of both reviews I agreed with.

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