Apassage of “Avenue of Mysteries,’’ John Irving’s new novel, frowns on autobiographical fiction: “ . . . you made up a story — you didn’t just write about the people you knew, or tell your own story, and call it a novel.’’
Protagonist Juan Diego Guerrero has nothing in common with Irving, except for being a novelist successful enough to attract groupies wherever he goes in the world — in Guerrero’s case a sexually voracious mother-daughter pair who may turn out to be genuine succubi. Oh, and Juan Diego has spent a good deal of his life teaching other writers (at his alma mater, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop) and is old enough to be taking beta blockers for his high blood pressure and to carry Viagra with him when he travels, in this case on an obscure pilgrimage to the Philippines.
But there any easy comparisons end. Juan Diego had a relatively ordinary childhood, raised in Iowa City by a gay ex-Jesuit and his transgendered Mexican lover (the adoptive parents die in the first wave of the AIDS epidemic). That is, except for the fact that before his adoption Juan Diego lived as a quasi-orphan in a Oaxacan dump, abandoned by his prostitute mother, who also cleaned for the local priests, and sporadically kept company with the dump master, who may or may not be his father.
In those days Juan Diego’s main companionship came from the books he salvaged from the dump — he taught himself to read in Spanish and English. For a time he has his sister, Lupe, a mind reader whose speech impediment is so drastic that only Juan Diego can understand what she says, but she gets killed in her early teens by a circus lion. He also has a crippled foot from having been run over by a truck at the dump.
Like Irving, Juan Diego doesn’t write about himself or his personal past, but “his novels came from his childhood and adolescence — that was where his fears came from, and his imagination came from everything he feared.” This novel is constructed on “parallel tracks.” The present finds Juan Diego traveling to the Philippines to fulfill a childhood promise and to meet a former writing student, the inspirational Catholic novelist Clark French. Along the way Juan Diego plays fast and loose with his dream-inhibiting beta blockers, partly in hope of recovering old memories, and also takes unusual doses of Viagra to ensure his performances with succubus Dorothy and (alternately) her mother Miriam. The saga of Juan Diego’s childhood, which occupies more than half the novel, tends to enter the narrative in the form of dreams.
Irving has always been a consummately convincing realist, in matters both great and small (remember the odor of roasting bell pepper in that suburban kitchen of “The World According to Garp’’). While writers of later generations seldom come close to achieving Irving’s levels of verisimilitude, his realism is transmogrified by his general whimsicality and by his attraction to baroque extrapolations of the absurd.
This sort of ambition — how vast an illusion can I build and maintain here? — is part of what makes Irving such a prodigious entertainer. At the same time there are figures of real pathos braided in and out of the narrative. A novel of this epic scope will see plenty of good people suffer and die, often for not-very-good reasons. Neither Irving nor Juan Diego has any interest in wringing redemption out of human suffering (a point of argument between Juan Diego and his former student Clark French).
The idea of religious redemption is substantially portrayed but never endorsed. Catholicism prompts some of the most extravagant absurdities here: a catty competition between devotees of the Virgin of Soledad and those of the more indigenous-to-Mexico Virgin of Guadelupe; a gargantuan statue dubbed by Lupe “the Mary Monster,” which first frightens the dump kids’ mother to death with a forbidding glance, then weeps real tears to bless the union of Juan Diego’s adoptive parents, the former priest Edward Bonshaw and Flor.
Juan Diego strolls through a kaleidoscopic landscape, populated with ghosts, madmen, fanatics, and freaks with the insouciance of a holy fool; in his beatific calm he is reminiscent of Dostoevksy’s Prince Myshkin. He seems to love the world and its people in spite of their warts, or maybe because of them. He understands that the “avenue of mysteries” we all travel is simply the “chain of events, the links in our lives — what leads us where we’re going, the courses we follow to our ends, what we don’t see coming and what we do.’’ The reader senses that, even with his limp, his walk to the end of his days will be graceful. No, this novel is not autobiographical, but it does present an aging artist with a sacred wound, tremendous desire, and an endless appetite for wonder.
AVENUE OF MYSTERIES
By John Irving
Simon and Schuster, 460 pp, $28
Madison Smartt Bell, the author of more than a dozen novels, teaches at Goucher College and can be reached at email@example.com