In John Irving’s 14th novel, aging Mexican-American novelist Juan Diego Guerrero travels from his home in Iowa to the Philippines. He plans to fulfill a decades-old promise he made to a Vietnam draft dodger to honor a father killed during World War II, and takes a former writing student as his tour guide. En route to Manila, he is overtaken and seduced by a ghostly mother-daughter duo: fans of Juan Diego’s novels, who will reappear in unexpected, sexually-charged moments throughout his journey. Going on and off his blood pressure medications, he travels in an almost hallucinatory state. He dreams.
“Dreams are ruthless with details,” Irving writes. And the brilliant details of Juan Diego’s dreams are the vivid memories of growing up with his younger sister, Lupe, in a squalid dump on the outskirts of Oaxaca. These memories are both comic and tragic, as one would expect from a John Irving novel. The children’s mother is a prostitute who also works as a housekeeper for the local priests. Juan Diego, an autodidact, teaches himself to read in Spanish and English. Lupe looks into minds instead of books, although her speech impediment means that only Juan Diego can understand her. Much of the book’s comedy—and in its early pages especially, Avenue of Mysteries is laugh-out-loud funny—arises from what is said or unsaid or lost in translation.
Like all Irving novels, Avenue of Mysteries moves with an antic profusion of plots and subplots that defy summary. Here, too, are many of Irving’s familiar motifs: orphans, physical injury and a circus, to name just a few. Yet as funny as the new novel often is, Irving’s reconsideration of earlier themes seems more somber here. The novel explores questions of belief and disillusionment, chance and choice, the mundane and the miraculous. Avenue of Mysteries is a provocative and perplexing novel.