Book Review: Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving

The main character of John Irving’s novel, Avenue of Mysteries, is a writer named Juan Diego Guerrero. Irving says this about his protaganist’s writing:

“In a Juan Diego Guerrero novel everyone is a kind of outsider; Juan Diego’s characters feel they are foreigners, even when they’re home.”

avenue-of-mysteriesThe same can be said about John Irving’s novels in general, but this is especially the case in Avenue of Mysteries. Born in Oaxaca, Mexico, Juan Diego and his sister, Lupe, are los ninos de la basura or dump kids. Their mother was a prostitute and they were raised by el jefe, the dump boss, who had a relationship with her at one time. Whether or not el jefe was Juan’s biological father is one of the book’s many mysteries.

What is extraordinary about Juan Diego is that he has taught himself to read, scavenging books that have been tossed in the garbage. Even more remarkable, he has taught himself to read both Spanish and English. Lupe, on the other hand, speaks her own language that only Juan Diego can understand. He is her translator. Some people think she’s retarded, but  she often surprises them because she can read their minds and sometimes she can even foresee the future.

We learn the story of Juan Diego’s life in Mexico and later in Iowa, mostly through his dreams and memories. After the luggage carrying his medication is delayed on the first leg of his flight to the Phillipines, Juan Diego’s “thoughts, his memories—what he imagined, what he dreamed were jumbled up.” And thus begins a masterfully crafted story that moves seamlessly from the present to the past and back again.

On the back jacket of Avenue of Mysteries is a blurb lifted from a TIME magazine review. It says:

“…unlike so many writers in the contemporary canon, he [John Irving] manages to write books that are both critically acclaimed and beloved for their sheer readability.”

I have to tell you I laughed out loud when I read that. So, was the reviewer acknowledging that critics like books that are unreadable? I have read my share of critically acclaimed, prize winning novels that experiment with time…no boring, formulaic beginning, middle and end for them. Quite frankly, they make my head hurt. Half the time I’m not sure who’s speaking or what century we’re in. I do believe those writers should read and study Avenue of Mysteries. This is how you do it so that your reader is with you every minute, enjoying the journey, spending time reflecting on the ideas you’re writing about, not struggling to figure out who’s who and what time period we’re in..

"The books which help you most are the books that make you think the most." Theodore Parker, American Transcendentalist and reforming minister of the Unitarian church.

“The books which help you most are the books that make you think the most.” Theodore Parker, American Transcendentalist and reforming minister of the Unitarian church.

There is so much more to say about this book. Irving expounds on various topics —writing, life’s mysteries, Shakespeare and the Catholic Church (anyone who went to Catholic school will most certainly recognize Sister Gloria) to name just a few. There’s also one wonderful episode in which Juan Diego views a book store bulletin board in Lithuania and mistakenly thinks he’s stumbled on a dating service that matches people based on the novels they read. He thinks it’s a wonderful idea. My question is why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?

I look forward to writing future blogs inspired by Mr. Irving’s reflections. I’d love to  share some of his thoughts on writing and I especially can’t wait to write my answer to the question “Who wrote Shakespeare?”

Just a word of caution. In previous blogs, I have expressed my love of cozy mysteries and happy endings. The word cozy is not one that could be applied to John Irving’s work, and satisfying might more aptly describe his endings than happy. If you’ve never read John Irving before, you might prefer to start with his all-time, best-selling novel , A Prayer for Owen Meany. However, if you are looking for a masterful piece of writing that gives you much to think about, Avenue of Mysteries is the book for you.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving

    • There is no end to this discussion…

      A minimally educated merchant from Stratford on Avon with intimate knowledge of the intrigues and intimacies of court life? Who wrote things that would have gotten any commoner imprisoned or executed? Who knows? Unless you have proof…

  1. Thanks for your stamp of approval for “Avenue of Mysteries” I appreciate your comments. I read “A Prayer for Owen Meany” many years ago. But I remember parts of the story.

    • Thanks, Judy. John Irving may not be for everyone, but I really like his books. I read a fairly negative NY Times review, but I don’t agree. I think this book is well worth the read, and as a writer, you will really enjoy his comments about writing and a writer’s life.

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