Some of the funniest moments in John Irving’s second novel, The Water-Method Man, involve the angry missives that cash-strapped grad student Fred “Bogus” Trumper dashes off to utility companies and other creditors. In a letter to the University of Iowa administration, in which he refuses to pay its $5 Recreation Fee, Trumper writes, “I am twenty-six years old. I am married and I have a son… Let them who recreate pay for their own fun. I’m not having any fun at all.”
Nearly all of Irving’s books, with their wildly funny narrative flights and insistently memorable characters, seem like they would have been entertaining to write—at least to a writer whose idea of fun mirrors the intense focus, rigorous physical discipline and several-moves-ahead thinking of a wrestling match. But in Irving’s twelfth novel, Last Night at Twisted River, the author appeared to stop having fun sometime after the titular “last night,” a bone-chilling scene in which young Danny Baciagalupo mistakes his father’s girlfriend for a bear attacking him and kills her with a cast-iron skillet.
Much of the rest of the novel devolves into a protracted bout between Irving and his critics, as he rails against the charges they’ve repeatedly leveled that he’s an alleged purveyor of crypto-autobiography disguised as fiction. The subsequent arc of Danny’s life and career as a writer parallels the few details that virtually anyone who’s followed Irving’s career would be likely to know about the author—and most of Danny’s fuming responses to criticism of his work match what Irving was saying in interviews at the time. But however compelling the story (truth be told, one of Irving’s finest) and the writing (clear and crisp and satisfying as ever), its author appears too pre-occupied with telling off his detractors to have gotten much joy out of imagining this story.
During his decade-long peak from the mid-‘80s to mid-‘90s—a period that yielded the post-Garp career-defining novels The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany, plus the ludicrously underrated, master-class-in-situational-humor A Son of the Circus—Irving established himself as one of the finest American writers of his time or any other. In those three novels, Irving achieved a sumptuousness of detail, a richness of characterization and an intricacy of plotting that more than mediated his advance into Dickensian didacticism, almost making you want to thank him for preaching at you so presumptuously.
In that decade, Irving moved as far away from his tendency to write novels about novelists as he’s ever dared. With Wilbur Larch, Owen Meany and Farrokh Daruwalla, Irving created memorably odd and masterfully drawn protagonists who (in strikingly different ways) weren’t novelists per se, but whose actions paralleled what empathetic novelists do by rewriting real life so the lives of those around them turn out better.
Following 2012’s lovely and unflinching In One Person, Irving returns in some respects to Last Night in Twisted River territory with his new book, Avenue of Mysteries. The dream-infused novel follows a (literally) heartsick novelist named Juan Diego Guerrero, a man who seems to have written several books similar to Irving’s own (a Bombay circus novel; a book about an illegal abortionist and his reluctant orphan protégé; a little-read early tale about a guy with a urinary tract disorder). The good news is Irving seems both playful and purposeful about it this time, with little of the axe-grinding defiance that plagued Last Night in Twisted River. Irving’s thoughts on how novelists’ work relates to their lives and their readers seem to come from a different place in this book, more imaginative than reactive.
Much of what Irving writes about where a novelist’s work comes from is quite fascinating. Particularly intriguing are the suggestions offered as to what motivated Juan Diego to write his Bombay circus novel and his abortionist novel—a much more compelling explanation of how a novelist who didn’t live Irving’s life could have written Irving’s books than the critic-baiting rebukes of Last Night at Twisted River.
If Irving’s past work seems to show up everywhere in Avenue of Mysteries, Juan Diego’s origins are so far afield from Irving’s as to make the question of crypto-autobiography largely irrelevant. Irving tells Juan Diego’s story in parallel tracks, shifting frequently from the aging, present-day author traveling to the far east to recollections of 14-year-old Juan Diego’s last year in Oaxaca, Mexico in 1970.
We’re introduced to the young Juan Diego as a “dump reader,” a de facto orphan raised in a garbage dump who has attracted the interest of local Jesuits by teaching himself to read (in both English and Spanish) the books he rescues from incineration. He lives there with his younger sister Lupe, a gifted mind reader with a congenitally wrecked voice that only Juan Diego—her personal translator—can understand. Lupe voices passionate convictions about Catholicism and colonialism and child exploitation, and strong (though sometimes inaccurate) visions of the future—in particular Juan Diego’s future. (Incidentally, Lupe’s dialogue is not rendered in capital letters, though her similarities to Owen Meany are unmistakable.)
The older Juan Diego, en route to the Philippines to honor a promise made 40 years earlier in Oaxaca, visits his Mexican childhood in vivid dreams that provide a conduit to Avenue of Mysteries’ Oaxacan episodes. He often finds these dream-world excursions obstructed by his recently prescribed Lopressor dosage, which tamps down his heart rate, adrenaline, sexual potency and imagination in equal measure.
Early on in the book, the aging Juan Diego finds his travels enlivened immeasurably when he meets Miriam and Dorothy, a strikingly attractive and eerily composed mother and daughter who appear to know everything about him and his books. Their repeated, alternating presence in Juan Diego’s journey brings his Lopressor-counteracting (and sometimes-supplanting) Viagra prescription into play. When the Lopressor gives way to the Viagra, Juan Diego’s dreams of Oaxaca (as technicolor-vivid in their way as Dr. Daruwalla’s spicy sausage dreams in A Son of the Circus) return with irresistible force, to the point at which he finds himself in the world of his youth as often as the world of his diminished present, hard-pressed to separate the two.
Juan Diego’s sexual encounters with Miriam and Dorothy often occur in that suspended dream-like state, including one encounter that yields one of the funniest instances of sexual situational humor Irving has ever written. Avenue of Mysteries makes frequent reference to the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe by an Aztec peasant near Mexico City in 1531, an event later (arguably) co-opted by the colonizing Catholic Church. Dorothy and Juan Diego, in flagrante delicto, deliver a breathless and feverishly erudite tag-team rendition of the Lady of Guadalupe legend, replete with historical detail, angry socio-political commentary and fervid anti-Catholic Church bias. A scene no other novelist could or would write, it’s Irving in excelsis.
Our Lady of Guadalupe re-appears in several contexts and configurations throughout the book, including a pedestaled figure that sits in Juan Diego’s and Lupe’s room during their brief residence in a Jesuit orphanage, and fires Juan Diego’s adolescent sexual imagination. This episode offers a hint of Irving’s newfound ease with the suggestion that he’s repeating himself; that maybe he’s come to enjoy repeating himself; and that it’s not evidence of sloppiness, or lack of imagination, or some twisted way of daring his critics to call him on it. Of the Guadalupe figure, Irving writes, “Sister Gloria believed Juan Diego’s Guadalupe figure more closely resembled a dressmaker’s dummy.” If the inclusion of such a peculiar and familiar detail seems confounding, Irving might just as well have broken the fourth wall (as film directors say), looked his readers right in the eye and finished the sentence with “the dressmaker’s dummy in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.” In Avenue of Mysteries, Irving’s insistence on sneaking in these scattershot allusions to previous works is fun—almost like the “Easter Egg” features hidden on DVDs to delight dedicated fans.
In another scene in which the older Juan Diego is reunited with a former writing student named Clark French (now a popular, moralizing Catholic novelist whose work Juan Diego doesn’t particularly like), Clark offers a grandiose exegesis of his mentor’s body of work. Repeating a criticism often directed at Irving’s own books, Clark says, “In Juan Diego’s world, you always know the collision is coming. Exactly what the collision is—well, this may come as a surprise. But you definitely know there’s going to be one. In the abortion novel, the moment the orphan is taught what a D and C is, you know the kid is going to end up being a doctor who does one.”
How could every set of characters find themselves on an equally profound, fated, collision course—either with each other or some transforming incident—as seems to befall the characters in each of Irving’s novels? Is it simply “a deus ex machine world,” as Dr. Daruwalla suggests in A Son of the Circus? The necessity of improbable contrivance is endemic to Irving’s belief that fictional worlds are by definition more ordered and deliberately shaped than the real world, an idea he demonstrates in all his books and explores explicitly in A Son of the Circus, Last Night in Twisted River and Avenue of Mysteries. “No good novel is a mess; many so-called real lives are messy,” Juan Diego tells interviewers. And why in the world, Irving might ask, would a writer bother to imagine a world and then focus on characters within it to whom nothing of consequence happens?
Irving has made a fascinating choice in Avenue of Mysteries to dissect his own work with energy and amusement in an earnest attempt to explain how a novelist’s imagination works—and how a novelist’s work draws on experiences without simply transcribing them. Juan Diego’s “novels came from his childhood and adolescence,” Irving writes. “That was where his fears came from, and his imagination came from everything he feared. This didn’t mean he wrote about himself, or about what happened to him as a child and adolescent—he didn’t.”
As in all of his novels, Irving doesn’t so much pour his life into Avenue of Mysteries as pour out what he knows and believes with a lifelong wrestler’s intensity and focus. Much in evidence are the explosive humor, moral precision and enveloping empathy that are the hallmarks of his gift. As has become increasingly evident over the course of his long and satisfying career, what John Irving knows is well worth telling.