- Avenue of Mysteries
- John Irving
- Knopf Canada
Juan Diego Guerrero, the hero of John Irving's fourteenth novel Avenue of Mysteries, has suffered more than his fair share of heartbreak and loss. As a child, he lived next to the town dump in Oaxaca, Mexico, in a shack owned by a man who was "probably not" his father, who accidentally ran over the boy's foot, leaving him with a permanent limp. His mother, a prostitute who also worked as a cleaning woman, died falling from a ladder while dusting a statue of the Virgin Mary. His sister, Lupe, who could read people's minds, but spoke in a language only Juan Diego understood, was killed when she was bitten by a circus lion.
If this curious mash-up of pathos and quirk sounds like vintage John Irving, in many ways it is. There's no wrestling in Avenue of Mysteries, nor any bears, but many other classic Irving tropes are on display in these pages: orphaned kids, male-to-female transsexuals, riotously comic set pieces, a passionate rejection of intolerance, and lots and lots (and lots) of sex.
Like a number of Irving's fictional subjects, including his best-known creation, T.S. Garp, the hero of The World According to Garp, Juan Diego Guerrero is a writer. But unlike Garp, and so many of the characters that have kept readers turning the pages of Irving's previous novels, Juan Diego is, for much of Avenue of Mysteries, a diminished, passive figure, a fallen leaf carried along by the stream of life.
Childless, lonely and beset by heart problems, Juan Diego, now in his fifties and living in Iowa, sets out for the Philippines to visit the grave of the father of a Vietnam-era draft dodger he met when he was a "dump kid" back in Oaxaca. One small problem with this plan: Juan Diego doesn't know the name of the draft dodger's father, nor even that of the draft dodger himself, whom he knew only as "el gringo bueno."
No matter: Before he even boards his plane, Juan Diego is taken in hand by Miriam and Dorothy, a mother and her daughter who are fans of his books. Within minutes, the pair have switched his reservations so he will be staying at their hotel, beginning a process of shadowing him through his journey in the Philippines, trading off sex-soaked nights with him – aided by frequent doses of Viagra – like some mother-daughter sex-wrestling tag team. Later, when Juan Diego tells friends that "Miriam and Dorothy are just mysteries to me," the reader nods along in agreement.
Whatever Miriam and Dorothy's true provenance, their presence brings more intrigue than interest to the shaggy-dog story of Juan Diego's travels in the Philippines, which appears only tenuously related to the more compelling tale of his childhood in the slums of Oaxaca.
Irving, who was born and raised in New England and now lives in Toronto, creates a gritty, unromanticized portrait of life in 1970s Oaxaca, where the streets are populated by a motley assortment of hookers, priests, American draft dodgers and luckless children like Juan Diego and his half-mad sister who struggle to survive on what the rest of the world has thrown away.
Late in the book, one senses the germ of a more vibrant, yet distinctly Irving-esque novel in the fragmentary tale we get of what happens after all of Juan Diego's natural family is gone. Alone in the world, the boy, who has taught himself to read English and Spanish by reading books discarded at the dump, is adopted by a crossdressing Mexican sex worker and the gay would-be priest who fall in love and move with him to Iowa.
This sounds daft, but on the page it feels far more emotionally plausible – and is far more interesting – than anything that happens on Juan Diego's interminable trek through the Philippines. In one rousing scene, Juan Diego confronts the grown-up version of a bully who teased him about his parents when he was a boy. "I was adopted by two gay men," Juan Diego tells the bully, who is at a restaurant with his family. "They were partners – they couldn't be married, not here or in Mexico, where I came from. But they loved each other, and they loved me – they were my guardians, my adoptive parents. And I loved them, of course."
Here, finally, is the man the reader has been waiting to meet: the man with the passion and fortitude to survive a childhood of abject poverty and become a successful writer, the man whom strange women would leap into bed with, the man readers would flip madly through nearly 500 pages to understand.
But then the chapter ends and we are back in the Philippines with Juan Diego and Dorothy annoying their hotel neighbours with their shattering orgasms – and that miraculous kid who somehow survived all that pain and loss once again fades from view.
Michael Bourne is a staff writer for The Millions. He lives in Vancouver.