Book review: Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving

I’m not sure what to think of John Irving anymore, but I will say this was the closest of his more recent books that I’ve read to those early ones that I loved. Of the three most recent that I’ve read – Until I Find You, A Widow For One Year, and Avenue of Mysteries – this is the one that comes closest to the tender sensibilities and quirky characters that originally drew me to Irving.

In Avenue of Mysteries an aging writer sets out on a mission he assigned himself at age 14 – to visit a man’s grave on behalf of a doomed hippie draft dodger he’d met during his youth as a surprisingly precocious trash picker in a Mexico City dump. Alternating between flashbacks and real time, we see Juan Diego as a youngster with his amazingly intuitive but unintelligible sister and then as a writer stalked by a sexually competitive mother-daughter team who appear to be some sort of other worldly beings who can’t be photographed or seen in mirrors.

The book pursues a complex plot, describing the unique relationship between young Juan Diego and his sister Lupe, a sweet romance between a priest and a transgender female, a variety of circus performers, and the intrusion of an ex-student-turned-popular-religious-novelist. They all come together to produce a compelling and sometimes touching narrative, but one with a host of difficulties.

It is, for instance, never really clear what role metaphysics are supposed to play, and ultimately they seem a confusing distraction. Are we really supposed to believe that Lupe reads minds or that the mother and daughter who take temporary charge of Juan Diego’s life are some sort of ghosts? And if so why are they the only supernatural elements of his life and what role is the supernatural actual playing in that story?

Ultimately, one concludes the book with a sense that it was delightfully imaginative but intellectually and thematically muddled. That weakness is compounded by a failure to engage with Juan Diego or any of the other characters, with the possible exception of Lupe, with any depth.

One is left at the conclusion with the feeling that the whole thing was a very pleasant but unsatisfying much ado about nothing.  It was a nice enough book, but nothing I’ve read of Irving’s since A Prayer for Owen Meany has really touched me . The appeal of Avenue of Mysteries Is that it offered some such promise. The disappointment is that it never quite gets there.