Juan Diego Guerrero, the protagonist of Avenue of Mysteries, has a lot in common with the lead characters in John Irving’s previous novels. He’s a successful writer with an instantly identifiable physical trait, this time a maimed foot, the result of a childhood accident involving a truck. He loves sex and partakes of it often, especially after a mother and daughter who claim to be fans take an unusual — otherwordly? — interest in him and climb in and out of his bed like a wrestler tagging her partner into the ring. One of them cries out in an ancient Aztec tongue whenever she achieves orgasm.
“Somehow, without his saying to this mother and her daughter a word about his feelings for them, the two women seemed to know everything about Juan Diego. And this mother and daughter, despite their apparent differences, worked together; they were a team. They quickly inserted themselves into what they believed was the utter helplessness of Juan Diego’s situation, if not his very existence. Juan Diego was tired. … He didn’t put up much of a fight. Basically, he let these women take charge of him.”
Fortunately, Juan Diego, who is middle-aged, has a Viagra prescription. He also takes beta blockers for his high blood pressure, which make him woozy and prone to dreaming about his past. It is dotted with wonderful calamities. He and his younger sister, Lupe, were “dump kids” born near a garbage heap in Oaxaca, Mexico, to a prostitute mother. Juan Diego learned how to read by fishing discarded books out of the trash. Lupe is psychic, can tell the future and speaks in a sort of Spanish only her brother understands.
Juan Diego’s youth, which takes up more than half the novel, was wild, even by the standards of magic realism, the genre Irving is toying with here. There are Catholic priests of the cruel and saintly variety; traveling circus performers, including a bewitching trapeze artist; draft dodgers; and, of course, a transvestite with a 24-karat heart, an Irving specialty. There are no bears this time, but there are dogs, and also, most critically, lions. Eventually, there are even ghosts.
Irving throws so much into Avenue of Mysteries that the book starts to feel like a dumpster for stray ideas and characters the 73-year-old author has collected over his career but was never able to incorporate into other stories. The contemporary half of the book, which is set in 2011, follows Juan Diego on his travels, which are dull and uneventful compared with the memories he relives. How could they not be? Here is an adolescence not even Federico Fellini, Gabriel García Márquez and Luis Buñuel combined would ever dream up. “Juan Diego lived there, in the past,” Irving writes, “reliving, in his imagination, the losses that had marked him.”
One of the consistent pleasures of Irving’s books is how he tells of the extraordinary things that shape the lives of his characters and form an integral part of who they become — T.S. Garp, Owen Meany, the orphan Homer Wells from The Cider House Rules. In the process, Irving also weighs in on history and culture — religion, AIDS, Vietnam, sexuality and women’s rights are among his most recurring subjects, all of which are accounted for here. But in Avenue of Mysteries, they don’t amount to much. Juan Diego has grown up to be somewhat of a dullard. Reading about him speaking persuasively about the possibility of miracles over dinner is less interesting than reading about him witnessing a statue weeping.
Avenue of Mysteries might have worked better as a collection of short stories. Lupe, for example, is one of Irving’s most memorable characters, a sharp-tongued, defiant, opinionated girl who can read the minds of circus animals and is an unabashed admirer of the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, who happens to be hideous. But in the deity’s defense, Lupe argues:
“Coatlicue didn’t ask to be born who she was … she was sacrificed — supposedly to do with creation. Her face was formed by two serpents — after her head was cut off and the blood spurted from her neck in the form of two gigantic snakes. Some of us … don’t have a choice about who we are.”
The same could be said for most of the characters in Irving’s books, who are often thrust into circumstances not of their making. Too bad, then, that in Avenue of Mysteries, Juan Diego’s best days — or at least his most eventful — are behind him. No wonder the fog of sleep is always beckoning him.