Sometimes you learn more about yourself as a reader when you read a book that gives you a myriad of feelings about it. Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving is such a book. The novel had me excited, disappointed, disdainful, and heartbroken throughout various stages of the story.
Avenue of Mysteries is the story of Juan Diego Guerrero, famed writer and teacher, who went to the Philippines to honor a childhood obligation. Juan Diego grew up as a “dump kid” on the streets of Oaxaca, Mexico. The novel flashbacks to Juan Diego’s childhood through his dreams. The dreams reveal the colorful environment that Juan Diego grew up in and made him into the man he would become as an adult.
Irving creates a cast of colorful characters that weave into Juan Diego’s past and present creating a synthesis of a life that has doubts regarding faith to missteps in love and certainty to the art of novel writing. Avenue of Mysteries seems to be a novel about how the other ( in this case a Mexican-American) can truly fit into society and does an environment make the person or can that person overcome their environment?
I will admit I like the parts of the novel when Juan Diego gives his views about writing. Like this one: “Even Clark French’s novels exerted a tenacious and combative goodwill: his main characters, lost souls and serial sinners, always found redemption; the act of redeeming usually followed a moral low point; the novels predictably ended in a crescendo of benevolence. Quite understandably, these novels were critically attacked. Clark had a tendency to preach; he evangelized. But Clark was a proselytizer—he couldn’t help it. Crescendos of benevolence following moral low points—-formulaic, but does this work with religious readers?”
Clark French, a student of Juan Diego at the University of Iowa, invites Juan Diego to the Philippines where he has become a successful Catholic novelist. Irving is asking the question does readers of religious fiction want their stories to be vehicles of proselytization and evangelism. If so, then does the religious fiction reader want art?
There is more insightful and thoughtful commentary throughout the novel of that vein. Irving riffs on sex, gender, and Catholicism in which he has made a reputation on throughout his work. However, I found those elements (especially with the rules of the Catholic Church) less interesting and overwrought.
This was my first John Irving novel and I’m glad I read Avenue of Mysteries. He created a literary page-turning novel that made me think, provoked my sensibilities, and caused me to connect with most of the characters. If a novel can do those things, then it’s worth reading despite its flaws.