“Wasn’t their coming of age the real danger, the actual marvel?” muses the all-seeing narrator of John Irving’s 14th novel, “Avenue of Mysteries.” Juan Diego is an aging writer attempting to reinstate his once lucid mind.
“The beta-blockers are blocking my memories!” Juan tells his doctor, and “stealing my childhood.” The pills also make it difficult for him to get aroused. She encourages Juan to experiment with Viagra while he sojourns to the Philippines to pay respects to a man he once met as a child.
We are told that Juan “was not so famous a writer that many of his readers recognized him.” Yet, two hyper-attentive women, Dorothy and Miriam, a mother-daughter duo, insert themselves into his life and commandeer his travel plans. They’re farcically salacious (and flat) from the get-go, materializing at the slightest inkling of Juan’s desires to satisfy both his id (Dorothy) and his ego (Miriam).
When he lands in Manila, he tells a driver he misses Mexico. “I never should have left — it’s been all downhill since!” But mysteriously, he won’t allow himself to go back. He sleeps a lot, dreaming of half a century earlier. He and his sister, Lupe, were brought up in a shack on the outskirts of a city dump in Guerrero. In these “dreams manipulated by memories, or the other way around,” we learn that Juan acquired a permanent limp from being run over by a truck driven by his father figure, the “dump boss,” when he was 14.
Juan drinks only beer, but not that much (like Billy from “In One Person”); there’s a chaotic circus (as in “Son of the Circus”); Juan has an “abortion novel” (like Irving’s “Cider House Rules”); a freak accident kills Juan’s prostitute mother (as it does John Wheelwright’s mother in “A Prayer for Owen Meany”). The piled-on references feel like cruise control imaginings. Juan’s journey gets waylaid by digressive theological conversations with his ex-student: “He had an ax to grind … with certain social and political policies of the Catholic Church.”
Despite these flaws, “Avenue of Mysteries” is still strangely compelling. The dump scenes are vivid and full of a tender weirdness. Lupe is one of Irving’s quirkiest female characters. Juan has to translate for her because nobody can understand her when she speaks; she reads minds and has an immaculate memory.
Miriam and Dorothy wield achingly familiar phrases and songs. Maybe they’re more ethereal than they seem? Like all of Irving’s novels, “Avenue of Mysteries” is about awakening — to the past, to hidden emotions, and to the truth and weight of trauma and childhood. Only this time, the narrative is dreamier and more ruminative.
Josh Cook’s writing has appeared in the Iowa Review, Sugar House Review, the Millions, and elsewhere. He lives in the Twin Cities.