What the dump reader doubted was the Church: its politics, its social interventions, its manipulations of history and sexual behavior – which would have been difficult for the fourteen-year-old Juan Diego to say in Dr. Vargas’s office, where the atheist doctor and the Iowa missionary were squaring off against each other.
Most dump kids were believers; maybe you have to believe in something when you see so many discarded things. And Juan Diego knew what every dump kid (and every orphan) knows: every last thing thrown away, every person or thing that isn’t wanted, may have been wanted once – or, in different circumstances, might have been wanted.
The dump reader had saved books from the burning, and he’d actually read the books. Don’t ever think a dump reader is incapable of belief. It takes an eternity to read some books, even (or especially) some books saved from burning.
After reading John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany a few years ago and determining that it was a favorite, I tried reading a couple of Irving’s other novels and just couldn’t get into them. Perhaps I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind or right time of life but I decided I’d give his latest novel Avenue of Mysteries a try. I’m glad I did and now I feel like I might need to give those other novels another attempt.
In Avenue of Mysteries, Irving introduces Juan Diego, an acclaimed, but aging, Mexican-American author (although he wouldn’t like the term ‘Mexican-American’) who is travelling to The Philippines to fulfill a promise he made to an American draft dodger in 1968 when he was a young teenage orphan living with his mind-reading younger sister in a Mexican dump.
Throughout his quest, as Juan Diego messes around with his beta-blockers and discovers two odd female companions for his travels, he dreams about his childhood, his sister, and a vast array of characters of varying spiritual faiths and ideas. The reader is under the impression that the dreams are re-telling the past; however, on occasion, one does wonder what is dream and what is truly flashback. Irving isn’t afraid to throw in the supernatural for some magical and/or hyper realism. A lesser story-teller would not have been able to do this without making the plot seem too convenient or coincidental. Irving makes it work well.
Another testament to his story-telling ability is that Irving tells the reader in many cases what’s going to happen before it actually happens. Once the reader gets there, though, they are still waiting to see how it all plays out. Irving continues to engage the reader in spite of revealing the situation previously. I think a big part of why this works belongs to Irving’s ability to develop a large number of characters at the same time. While the reader may know what’s going to happen ahead of time, they don’t know how each character is going to react. Here’s Irving’s take on this phenomenon from the story, itself:
The way you remember or dream about your loved ones – the ones who are gone – you can’t stop their endings from jumping ahead of the rest of their stories. You don’t get to choose the chronology of what you dream or the order of events in which you remember someone. In your mind – in your dreams, in your memories – sometimes the story begins with the epilogue.
Juan Diego’s dreams about his makeshift family have some wonderfully funny episodes, as well as touching and tragic ones. Juan Diego’s disillusionment with the Catholic Church provides for some very irreverent comedy but at the same time Irving portrays characters that are devoutly Catholic with more sympathy than one might expect.
I don’t know if the other Irving novels I’ve attempted to read would seem different now but I do know, for me, this was the right time for this great story.