The best of John Irving’s novels have a powerful narrative impulse. You can’t stop reading them. One reason is that Irving plants clues about what is to come. The anticipation or dread pulls you along. This was certainly the case with The World According to Garp (1978) and A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989). Added to this narrative pull are his distinctive, sometimes lovable, sometimes eccentric characters. The reader grows fond of them, and this is certainly true of the leading character Juan Diego in Avenue of Mysteries (2015). This novel contains many elements from Irving’s earlier novels: a dead mother, ambiguous concerns with religion, anticipation of an event that is telegraphed from the beginning but that doesn’t happen until the end, transsexuals, abortion, sex, an array of interesting characters. I have read various discussions about whether Irving is a truly literary novelist, or whether he was at his height simply a pop culture phenomenon, popular in the same way that the Beatles are (or were) popular. Irving is certainly a “literary” writer, that is, a serious novelist who explores with skill and finesse important ideas. His method right now may not be fashionable, but being in fashion and being a significant novelist are not related concepts.
Juan Diego is a novelist who resembles Irving in a curious sort of way. He has written a novel about abortion, and another about an Indian circus, for example. He spends much time thinking back on his early life, and it is easy to imagine that Irving may have examined through Juan Diego some of his own concerns as a writer who has entered his later years. But in other ways Juan Diego and Irving are not alike. The novel moves back and forth in time between Juan’s early life in a Mexican garbage dump and his later years as a highly successful novelist travelling to a cemetery in the Philippines to pay homage to a man killed in the Second World War. He doesn’t know the man’s name or exactly where he is buried, which creates a challenge for him, but in making this trip he is keeping a promise to a drunken hippy whom he knew in his early days in Mexico. Avenue of Mysteries does not describe Juan Diego’s middle years, only his life as a child and as an older man.
Avenue of Mysteries has a particular interest in religion, spirits, mindreading. Above all, it’s interested in death. By the end, almost everyone who has passed through its pages has died. Juan Diego dies. To say this is not to give anything away since the novel hints at his future end from the beginning. He has stopped taking his beta blockers on a regular basis, for instance, so as to increase the effectiveness of the Viagra which he also takes. He grows increasingly fatigued, is sometimes confused, feels nauseous—these are ominous signs. Irving mentions the beta blockers often enough that it is too easy to describe them as clumsy foreshadowings. He wants the reader (I think) to notice these clues, to recognize that they are leading towards Juan’s final mortal moments, to make them part of the novel. Life has both a beginning and an end.
There is at least one miracle in the novel involving a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe. (Juan is named after the farmer who first had a vision of the Virgin 400 years before.) Juan’s sister Lupe can read minds and sometimes see the future. She speaks in a garbled tongue that only Juan can understand—he serves as her translator. There is a sacrifice (reminiscent of the one in Owen Meaney). Just as it was possible to find an underlying Christian meaning in Owen Meany, we can do the same in this novel. But there are other religions at issue here: the Aztec religion, to which the Virgin of Guadalupe may be related. And perhaps some strain of Buddhism or Shintoism: two women—a mother and her daughter, both very lusty, trail Juan throughout his travels in the novel, and at some points he realizes they cast no shadow and produce no reflections in mirrors. The function of these woman and possibly other elements reminded me of Haruki Murakami.
A highpoint is the scene in which Juan’s mother Esmerelda, a simple-minded prostitute who works her trade near the garbage dump, dies while cleaning the statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The tone of this novel is light and whimsical. Despite its subject, it is not dark.
The New York Times reviewer wrote that “More often this novel is so life-affirming you want to hurl yourself into bus traffic. The things that for a while were magical in Mr. Irving’s writing long ago came to seem, instead, like tricks. From the reader’s perspective, this is magic ordealism.” I disagreed with this review, which while not entirely dismissing the novel disparaged its methods and messages as too obvious and hackneyed. Irving may be following a formula of sorts that worked for him in his earlier novels, but it does not fail him in Avenue of Mysteries. Juan Diego is a remarkable character.