Avenue of Mysteries
by John Irving
2015 / 480 pages
read by Armando Duran 20h 50m
rating: 7.5 / general fiction – humorous
I started listening to the sample and it sounded so good – wonderful – two kids in a dump in Mexico with one teaching himself how to read and the other learning from him – one older extraordinarily intelligent, the younger strangely insightful – and the Catholic church priests take such a loving interest. I almost bought the Kindle version to go along with the Audible, but I fortunately scanned a brief review first and – um … I don’t think so. It was going to be all I could do to get through the Audible because it’s Irving up to his usual circus tricks – sex and love amongst the crippled or elderly, general weirdness, animals, dreams, and some Catholic bashing. (ho-hum)
In the days when the phrase “magical realism” meant something other than the surreal present tense, when it was an art form and not a way of coping, critics tucked John Irving and Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the same cozy paragraphs. Magical realism helped us hold the other at arm’s length. Those wacky Catholics with their rituals. Those miracles that lift up the poor. That dream sequence where we see the path not taken.
But now the present contains more menace, and the other—the poor, the racially, sexually, or religiously different—cannot be held at arm’s length. There simply isn’t enough room for arm’s length, what with information technology, resource scarcity, and population growth. We all live in an age of trauma; an age in which our brute will has failed us. In Avenue of Mysteries, trauma pushes Juan Diego (as it does with all of us if we are lucky) into a life lived in his imagination. Not so much magical realism as survival.
The rating of 7.5 means I really liked parts of it – and yes, I REALLY liked parts of it – very much. But for every 7.5 parts of like, there were 2.5 parts of yuk –
Juan Diego, our hero, a middle-aged and well-known author from Iowa, is yearning for some sweet free love even though he is prescribed beta-blockers by his doctor for his heart condition. Beta-blockers inhibit sexual urges, so he decides he needs Viagra to counter that. I was really rather amused because I take beta-blockers and am quite familiar with the lethargy – fortunately, it doesn’t seem to mess with my dreams.
Irving has a reputation as a wild and wacky, irreverent sort of guy, right? He writes “weird shit.” He’s always written pretty graphically about sex and cripples. No difference here.
Of course we all know it’s not based on personal experience, but and fwiw, Irving did attend the Iowa writers school and his attitudes regarding the themes/political issues seem to mirror those of the narrator judging from the prior novels I’ve read, and our adult Juan Diego. His other books are in small part autobiographical but in a limited way – so who knows? .
Catholic-bashing is frequent and overt in the book, but there is some Catholic virtue, too, although that’s harder to discern. And Irving hits on other topics like the gay-lesbian life, AIDs, birth control, Mary’s virginity, transvestite dwarfs and so on, etc.
However, and this is the 7.5 part, it’s also about miracles and a genuine love of life. With Irving’s first books this was so fun and to an extent that’s still true.
The new idea, and the one which rather intrigued me for awhile, is the story of the two Mexican kids staying near the big trash-dump while their mother works as a prostitute. One child teaches himself to read in two languages and is the young Juan Diego. The other child is his sister, Lupe of the foul mouth and apparently reveres the saints, especially Mary, mother of Jesus.
Before too long the pair have some have crazy adventures which include meeting Hippie, a draft-dodging but “good gringo,” from whom Juan Diego receives a dying request to visit HIppie’s father’s grave in the Philippines. Then their mother dies. Then the young Juan Diego is injured by a motor vehicle which results in a permanent limp. Finally when they join the circus (of course they do), they meet a transvestite dwarf wife who marries an American priest and, well, Juan grows up to become a very well known writer who in later life (the frame story), travels to the Philippines to fulfill his promise to Hippie.
The frame story which dips in and out from the actual first pages takes place while Juan Diego is en route to the Philippines. During the trip he meets Miriam and Dorothy, a horny mother and daughter team whose image doesn’t show up in mirrors – he needs to take the Viagra. Also on the trip he dreams the back-story of memories of Mexico. The tale then goes back and forth between the events of the trip and his memories with Lupe in Mexico. There is no real overarching plot –
I enjoyed Irving right along with everyone else as he told great stories of strange families and dogs named Sorrow, unknown incest, dreams and futures – The World According to Garp, The Cider House Blues, The Hotel New Hampshire, and A Prayer for Owen Meany were great. A Widow For One Year was okay. There are several parts of this book which harken back to those good old books,
There are some really touching parts – after you get to know the characters in the first chunk of the book. Juan Diego is asleep in the plane on the way to Manilla with his arms out as if he were holding a box and he’s crying in his sleep. A fellow passenger alerts the stewardess and Juan Diego gives an incredible explanation. The beta-blockers bring these dreams and memories.
What is amusing to me is that I take beta-blockers. I know how lethargic they can make you feel. I have no idea if the sex drive goes down – no sex available or wanted here. I haven’t noticed a change in my dreams- maybe they’re a bit more vivid but I’ve always had nice dreams.
It’s a long book and about half way through I thought it was way too long, but toward the end I realized it was too long but by 200 pages. The reader has to really get to know some of the characters and what they mean to Juan Diego to get to the good part.