AVENUE OF MYSTERIES, by John Irving. Simon & Schuster, 460 pp., $28.
With his 14th novel in a career that spans nearly a half-century, John Irving is up to his old tricks — except not quite. At least that’s how one might put it in Irvish, the author’s signature dialect of English, a nearly musical notation speckled with dashes, italics and parentheses, exclamatory dialogue, and, in each book, a unique catalog of repeated phrases and refrains. In this book, we have “the dump kids” and “the dump boss,” “the italicized word goes here word,” “probably not his father,” “Enough sex, Dorothy,” and many more. (By the way — there really is enough sex, Dorothy.)
Aside from being written in Irvish, “Avenue of Mysteries” is full of Irvingisms — the transvestite, the circus, the orphanage, the character who can’t speak, the car accident, the missing father, the weird Christianity. These elements are part of the fun for fans: hearing the familiar rhythm, finding the trademark components fit together in a novel way.
So here’s the new configuration. Juan Diego is a Mexican-born writer in his late 50s. As the book opens, he is traveling to the Philippines to fulfill a promise he made long ago to a Vietnam War draft dodger in Oaxaca, and also to visit a nerdy former writing student now living in Manila.
Juan Diego Guerrero is on beta blockers for his high blood pressure, but because these make him feel “diminished,” he also has a Viagra prescription. This will come in handy because he has several episodes of hotel sex with a gorgeous mother-daughter pair who seem to be following him around — appearing and disappearing in a way that suggests Juan Diego is doing it with a pair of angels. “As for the unholy two of them actually being the ones who carried out God’s will — well, why even think about it? Who could imagine it?”
I’ll tell you who.
Blame the beta blockers, but Juan Diego just can’t stay awake. At least half the novel is devoted to describing a dream he keeps falling back into, a dream which is the complete narrative of his childhood. The stories of past and present run side by side throughout the book, each with so many characters and so much plot it is a challenge to keep it all straight.
Juan Diego and his sister Lupe, a psychic with a speech impediment, are “dump kids.” They live in a hovel with the “dump boss,” who is “probably not” Juan Diego’s father; their mother is a prostitute and a cleaning lady for the local Jesuits. A precocious reader, little Juan Diego draws the attention of one the brothers, who brings him reading material to supplement the books he pulls out of the dump fires. Also, he is maimed for life by a vehicle driven by the man who is “probably not his father.”
The children’s mother is killed by a statue of the Virgin Mary, the Jesuits’ initial plan to move the children to their orphanage is jettisoned in favor of having them join a circus, Juan Diego is adopted by a young monk from Iowa who quits the Jesuits to marry a transsexual Mexican prostitute. Throughout these events and many more, Juan Diego keeps waking up in the Philippines, where his Viagra prescription continues to get him in trouble.
As Juan Diego plans his next novel, “One Chance to Leave Lithuania,” we’re given a look into what are clearly the principles of Irving’s own fiction — how every novel begins as a what-if proposition, how every character is a kind of outsider, how the plot follows a kind of collision course that the reader may well see coming.
Yes, but even the die-hard fans might prefer a less busy route next time.