480 pages, $35 (hardcover)
Release date November 3, 2015
Novelist John Irving has no time for false idols, and the exposed truths beneath the surfaces of Avenue of Mysteries reveal a world that’s never quite what it seems. Telling the life story of celebrated Mexican-American author Juan Diego Guerrero via a fragmented, often drug-addled narrative that jumps both decades and continents, Mysteries explores worlds both tangible and supernatural. From the garbage dumps of Oaxaca, Mexico, the slow-moving suburbs of Iowa and the backwater resorts of the Philippines, Irving has created an immensely moving and suspenseful autumnal page-turner.
Born in el basurero – the garbage dumps pored over by poor families in search of sellable treasures – Juan Diego earns the nickname “dump reader” after his life is immeasurably changed by charred books he saves from the dump’s fires. They open his eyes to a world beyond the smoky ruins around him. His psychic younger sister, Lupe, spits out the secrets of those around her, albeit spoken in an accent only Juan Diego can understand. Following their entry into the circus as a brother-sister mind-reader act, Lupe’s distrust of the sculptures of female saints propped around Oaxaca prompts a slew of comically profane insults he refuses to translate.
Where Avenue of Mysteries shines best is in its characterizations of Juan Diego and those around him, some potentially mere figments of his own imagination. As the tale progresses, we encounter those behind the curtains of the circus, a quartet of misfit priests, a golden-hearted trans-prostitute, vengeful lionesses, the shy ghosts of U.S. soldiers, and a mother-daughter pair of over-sexed Svengalis. Full of page-turner twists and surprises, Mysteries is doubtless one of the year’s most original – and uniquely fulfilling – mainstream novels.
By the time we reach the novel’s enlightening finale on the gecko-infested resort beaches of the Philippines, Irving’s myriad avenues deconstruct the very art of writing itself. Mysteries is a journey well worth taking, the rare breed of book that causes readers to mourn the lack of more pages.
Discussion Points for Your Book Club
Dig deeper with these five Book Club Discussion points for John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries.
1. Juan Diego and his ex-student Clark French have a lengthy debate on using one’s imagination to write versus merely fleshing out personal experiences. What are your thoughts on their discussion? Twain often drew from his own experience rather than create fiction – does that make him a lesser writer than Shakespeare?
2. The mother-daughter duo of Miriam and Dorothy seemingly appears and disappears at will, yet they are known by all who pass through Juan Diego’s life. Do you think they’re real or imaginary, and why? Can they exist in both realms?
3. While Irving takes several potshots at the self-righteousness of organized religions, Avenue of Mysteries also includes ghosts and other phenomena suggesting a supernatural world beyond death. What overall statements does the book make about both religion and supernatural beliefs?
4. By announcing the thoughts of those around her, Lupe gives her sibling unfiltered insight into the adults around them. Her forecasting of events, however, isn’t always so precise. Was Juan Diego right to heed Lupe’s predictions? Do you think her mind-reading skills actually extend into forecasting, or is she just as adept at reading people as her brother is at reading books?
5. Through his characterization of Juan Diego, Irving explores the vocation of writing. He also contrasts Juan Diego with his former student Clark French – a somewhat more populist author. The pair engages in a lengthy dialogue on the differences between Shakespeare and Mark Twain, their affection reserved for the former. What do you think Irving gives away about his own beliefs about writing in Avenue of Mysteries? What does he reveal about himself?