In John Irving’s latest novel, Avenue of Mysteries, we meet Juan Diego, a neurotic writer, obsessed with taking his beta-blockers and Viagra and perving on women old and young. During his childhood in a Mexico slum he was known as the “dump reader” for his love of books. Now as a middle-aged writer, he’s on his way to the Philippines to confront his past. While that is the simplest of explanation, it is of course, not the whole story. As past and present, 2010 into 2011, collide it becomes increasingly clear that Juan Diego’s reality contains many magical aspects, such as when he meets the sexually voracious mother-daughter pair who may turn out to be genuine succubi. Or the fact that he’s on the only one who can understand his sister Lupe, who appears to speak gibberish to everyone else. She also, apparently, can read minds. But both are extremely smart, with Juan Diego apparently gifted with the ability to learn to read in both Spanish and English (which comes in handy multiple times).
Lupe, of course, is much like Irving’s most famous clairvoyant, Owen Meany. She is wry, often rude, often offensive (especially to the Catholic Church), but one of the most interesting characters the author has created in a while. It’s too bad she does not stick around for the whole book. Unlike many of Irving’s book, the only autobiographical aspect between him and Juan is that they’re writers. But much like real writer, the fictional Juan Diego has a bestselling circus novel set in India, which could prove distracting for long-time fans whom are already convinced the author prime has long time passed.
I also found the book difficult to get through, but I thought perhaps I was distracted with work issues and the Thanksgiving holiday. While I did not find it as unpleasant as say Until I Leave You, it’s clear to me that Irving tried to make a novel that wasn’t going to be compared to him, that this was not going to be another veiled, semi-autobiographical tome. And I’m unsure if Irving’s intention was to create an unreliable narrator, but I found Juan Diego to be that (and the book is not told in first person). The whole mystery of the mother-daughter is also distracting, with no clear resolution –are they succubi or ghosts?
Granted, Irving remains a wonderful wordsmith, but his plots are getting odder and more creaky than stairs in a dilapidated ghost-house.