Book Review: John Irving’s “Avenue of Mysteries”

by Danny Stout

Religion is difficult to pin down in the work of John Irving. He treats it for the complex phenomenon it is, and is dubious of overly pious institutions. In “Avenue of Mysteries,” he loathes the Catholic Church, and like “A Prayer for Owen Meany” and “The World According to Garp,” individuals have a greater proclivity for moral judgments than blindly following institutions. Religion fades in and out of the story, or should I say, stories plural. As a mature but  traditional-style novelist there are subplots galore; Irving’s mastery lies in vibrancy and relevancy of his scenes and characters. Many face moral dilemmas, and this is where he interjects theories about transcendence and spirituality. In Avenue, this has to do with the nature of the past and how it sustains us. Sensitivity warning: Irving has much to say about morality, but doesn’t shy away from sexual imagery. This may be an issue for some readers.

Protagonist Juan Diego Guerrero and his sister Lupe were “pepenedores” (scavengers) in 1960’s Mexican garbage dumps as kids. In the rubble, young Juan finds books and learns to read. Eventually, he becomes a novelist of notoriety in Iowa, the same place author John Irving got his training (i.e., The Iowa Writers Workshop).

While Irving points out the flaws of organized religion, he forces both his characters and readers to face moral dilemmas, and particularly, who they are in this confusing world. “In every life, I think there’s always a moment when you must decide where you belong.” Juan doesn’t think of himself as Mexican, Mexican-American, nor American.  As for past, present, or future, he prefers nostalgia, delighting in his dreams and thoughts. Mulling days-gone-by works well until he takes blood pressure medication that stunts  the dream-generating area of the brain. Thus he complains to the doctor that his dreams have been stolen. The past is no diversion without dreams.

Irving’s fiction is known for its whimsy and esoteric characters. A surprise on every page is a mild exaggeration. Remember the scene in The World According to Garp when an airplane crashes into a house as Garp and a real estate agent look on.  “I’ll take it,” he says. “It’s accident proof.” A similarly diabolical scene in Avenue occurs when Diego, fascinated by the circus, wants to write about it. Lupe is abruptly killed by a circus lion. Another example is an American draft dodger Diego meets in Mexico as a boy. The man has a torn American flag tattoo on his backside, and insists that Diego visit the grave of his father in the Phillippines who was killed in World War II. Diego commits to do so, and fulfills the promise later in life.  There is a lesson in his affinity for the absurd.  Perhaps his message is that there’s value in everyone, despite their circumstances. Such individuals are relegated to the fringes of society, but in Irving’s novels they’re heroes in breaking the myth of the homogeneous individual. When we expect conformity to the point of overlooking the uniqueness of each soul, what kind of life is it?

It’s difficult to abstract the novel in a few words due to unrelenting surprises.  Diego discovers Lupe is clairvoyant and, unlike his own affinity for the past, she can predict the future as well. Like the boy in Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, life is about finding your true mission. Owen is more successful than Diego due to addiction to memory.

I recall a line in Irving’s Cider House Rules when Dr. Larch says to his assistant at the hospital, “It surprises me you have such a high expectation about people.” For Diego, that expectation has to do with making memories. Once they’re created, he can survive on his past and dreams. Avenue is about survival through memory, and the importance of acquiring meaningful experiences early enough in life so they can carry us through. This way, he doesn’t live in the past without participating in the present; he simply prioritizes them. In Mormon theology, past, present, and future are of equal importance in the plan of salvation. Diego’s story, and therefore Irving’s novel can be interpreted as inconsistent with the three pillars of the LDS faith. The book, however, can be viewed as an invitation to examine the significance of the past more closely. The pejorative phrase, “Living in the past,” makes strong reliance on memories taboo. Perhaps Irving’s book will be a fulcrum for deeper examination of the possibilities of memory.

Reading the book, the chorus of Jethro Tull’s song Living in the Past kept playing in my head:

Oh, we won’t give in,
We’ll keep living in the past.
Oh, we won’t give in,
Let’s go living in the past.

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