Avenue of Mysteries
by John Irving
2015 / 480 pages
read by Armando Duran 20h 50m
I’m reading this again because when I finished last time (a couple days ago) my mind had changed about it. I’d not been seeing the best things about it – they were all covered up with the sex-amonst-the-cripples stuff, etc.
This time I’m more looking for the more spiritual type “mysteries” which might be the entire theme – the rest is just the way Irving writes and what he writes about, . athough there may be multiple themes. Also, the sex on over-drive thing might be simply a way of relating the themes – a motif kind of.
CHAPTER 1: Lost Children
The narrative opens in the present time with Juan Diego, our protagonist, as a 54-year old man who grew up in southern Mexico but has lived in Iowa for forty years – for him these are completely different lives and they become like “parallel tracks” in his memories and his dreams. His doc says he’s one or the other – Mexican kid or Iowan adult – and Juan Diego agrees.
Then the story goes back to when Juan Diego was 14 in Mexico and living in a a run-down shack in the smoke-filled “basurero” (trash dump) of Guerrero, a small community in the state of Oaxaca, in the southern area of Mexico. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Putla_Villa_de_Guerrero
Our Lady of Guadalupe –
“In 1531, a scant ten years after the fall of the Aztec nation, a humble Indian named Juan Diego was walking over the hills just north of Mexico City (built on the razed Azctec capital of Tenochtitlan).”
This is the story of the “dark madonna” of Mexico and a LOT of other things.
Juan Diego’s 13-year old sister Lupe (short for Guadalupe – a unisex name) declares herself to be a “Guadalupe Girl.” She’s also very bright and says what she thinks – often using foul language. She also has some kind of speech impediment – Juan Diego has to translate for her. And she can read people’s minds under certain conditions –
Brother Pepe -the simple and very good-hearted Jesuit priest who brings books to the kids (Jesuits came third to Oaxaca, the Dominicans were first and Augustinians next). Pepe generally befriends the kids.
Father Pepe learns that the kids read “The Lady with the Dog” by Anton Chekov and Lupe had decided that sex among people who weren’t married was wrong. (Her mother is a prostitute.) Juan Diego translates wrongly for Brother Pepe –
Pepe asks about the English in The Lady and the Dog and the kids shrug – Lupe translates Pepe’s mind as wondering where the shrug came from and says “From our mother.”
Their mother is named Esperanza (“Hope”) and she works as a prostitute but doesn’t live in Guerrero although she works there as a cleaning lady for the Jesuits because they want to save her from the worst kind of “fallen.”
To Pepe the kids are fallen too – or is it “future falling”? or “falling further?” They need saving.
And Rivera, “el Jefe” their father is “not exactly” Rivera, “el jefe” (the boss) but he protects and provides for them”like a father.” He never beats them. So they are different from the other dump children and resented. But all the “ninos de la basura” pick through the trash.
Dirty Rat is the kids’ puppy who is starving for something. And Pepe is thinking something really dark – ?? – which he does’t want Lupe to know so he leaves.
Juan Diego dreams of flying – or rather walking upside down in the heavens with crowds looking up at him. He’s also counting to himself. Then he tells Lupe:
“There comes a moment in every life when you must let go with your hands – with both hands.”
Whereupon Lupe tells him the dream is about the future – hopefully not his – and that’s it’s about death. It’s a nightmare he had the night he became crippled.
And just like that, the lack of this dream brings the reader back to generally contemporary times, because over the years, that dream became a favorite memory but the beta-blockers won’t let him remember it. His doctor thinks he’s missing the adrenalin and “hysterical overstatements.” – Beta-blocker info is interesting although not entirely accurate I think – See the Mayo clinic page: – try low stress!
Alas, Juan Diego worries about his sex life so the doc gives him Viagra and tells him to experiment. Ha! – He stashes a bunch.
** So what we have here is an opening chapter about “Lost Children” and stories and reading and languages and religion and getting “saved” and mothers and fathers and sex and translations and mind reading and past and the future and memories and dreams. Rather extraordinary.
* – 4 main characters are introduced
CHAPTER 2: The Mary Monster
Opens in contemporary times, in New York where Juan Diego, whom we now understand to be crippled, is on his way to the Philippines; he has a “mission” in Manilla. . He has retired from teaching but not from writing. One student, Clark French, had kind of taken over – we shall hear more from Clark. There is a snowstorm in NY so the air traffic is not moving but Juan Diego wants to get to the airport anyway because his flight has not been officially cancelled.
Back to memory or back-story: Juan Diego’s “mission” is visit the American Military Mission in Manilla out of respect for his friend, a draft-dodger hiding out in Mexico in the early 1970s, when Juan Diego was a young teenager. He befriended Juan Diego and Lupe before Juan Diego became a cripple and they only knew him as “the good gringo.” The draft-dodger’s father had been killed in the Philippines during WWII – but the draft-dodger didn’t want to die in Vietnam so he died in Oaxaca.
Rivera thinks mushroom hippies are “the stupid ones,” looking for enlightenment, and the mescal hippies were smarter but self-destructive with prostitutes. Lupe thinks that men are always thinking about sex – worm – mescal. funny ha ha – (not!)
Juan Diego reads an analysis by a Jesuit about D.H. Lawrence’s writing on Thomas Hardy in English. Not only is the language a problem – several pages had been burned and smelled of smoke. Lupe discusses with Rivera and they laugh – a happy time and memory for Juan Diego.
From Chapter 2: (memory again)
“The past surrounded him like faces in a crowd. Among them, there was one he knew, but whose face was it?” For a moment, shrouded by the surrounding snow and intimidated by the vulgar limo driver, Juan Diego forgot that he’d already written this, too. He blamed the beta-blockers.”
And then there’s the war of the virgins – Virgin Mary, Virgen de la Soledad and her basilica: https://casitacolibri.wordpress.com/2011/12/19/virgin-of-solitude/
Lupe believes in the Mary Monster – the dark Mary at the Temple of the Society of Jesus. She questions but their mother is undoubting – and she cleans the statue.
Memories mix with reality again – you’d think Juan Diego was getting senile but no, he told the doctor that the memories are his religion so I suppose he’s praying.
** reading/understanding/misreading, sex, mothers, a quest/mission/ travel
* – parallel plot threads
CHAPTER 3- Mother and Daughter
Juan Diego gets to the airport but has a 40+ hour wait due to the snowstorm. During this time he meets Miriam (Mary?) and Dorothy (“God” in Greek – Jesus?) a mother-daughter team, who as fans of his novels, dote on him. They fix him up with Hong Kong reservations.
** sex, mothers, reading –
* 2 more characters introduced
CHAPTER 4 – The Rear View Mirror
Gecko? Back to Mexico and the kids with Rivera who is a very good guy to them, very kind and leaves his scary dog, Diablo, to protect them. Juan Diego is very, very smart. There are many readers in the little area but only Juan Diego and Lupe of the kids. They get used American paperbacks from the many hippies. The dogs are always around – dead or dying, burned up. Lupe gets the puppy. Rivera’s gift of a water pistol brings on a discussion of artificial insemination which Lupe thinks is disgusting.
Lupe predicts Lupe will be someone else later – “You’re not always going to be Juan Diego Rivera – That’s not who you are.” (Diego Rivera?)
And then Rivera backs his copper-loaded truck over Juan Diego’s foot and crushes it. Juan Diego was trying to get a feather he thought was different from those of the vultures – it was a chicken feather under the wheel of the truck . The rear-view mirror was cracked. As this happened the hips of Lupe’s Guadalupe doll moved suggestively and then she fell to the floor in the truck cab. A plane flies across the sky with an unrevealed but important passenger and there is a prediction of the future – devastating. Lupe says they need a miracle –
(The dream is mentioned – we are in Juan Diego’s favorite memory/dream?)
Lupe feels the Guadalupe doll is not for Indian children and the two kids are part Indian.
Guadalupe has been corrupted by the Catholics… She was never our Virgin, but the Catholics stole her; they made her the Virgin Mary’s dark skinned servant. They might as well have called her Mary’s slave – maybe Mary’s cleaning woman!”
Because Guadalupe has been made a part of the Jesuit agenda she can no longer perform miracles. Lupe is pissed at the Jesuits and has a love-hate relationship with the “corrupted” Guadalupe and she had been the “real deal.” Rivera is pissed at Lupe’s sacrilegious diatribe.
“We’re the miraculous ones,” says Lupe to Juan Diego and says Juan Diego up in the Hong Kong bound airplane with the two women.
** reading, memory, Guadalupe and miracles, language,
* – love in the dump – Juan Diego’s crippledness
CHAPTER 5 – Yielding Under No Winds
Enter Edward Bonshaw new and enthusiastic, a 30-year old Iowan Jesuit missionary and a scholastic, of Scottish Protestant descent with a conversion to Catholicism in his ancestry. In welcoming him Bonshaw uses Latin and is misunderstood by Father Pepe – Bonshaw has whips in his luggage – flagellation? – as well as books.
In his little VW Pepe accidentally drives Bonshaw to the dump, which smells of burning dogs, and which Bonshaw mistakes for “Hades.” They meet a dump child who gives him a dog which smells. Bonshaw doesn’t understand Spanish at all.
Pepe hopes for the best in Bonshaw – that he’ll be on the good side of the fight with the other brothers who are too dogmatic for Pepe. And they run into a piece of road kill when Juan Diego in the contemporary times speaks and wakes up.
Miriam responds – “Were you writing?” and they’re descending into Hong Kong.
Juan Diego, having slept for 15 hours, has not taken beta-blockers and has an erection as well as his dreams. The talk between mother and daughter turns to sex and what Juan Diego was saying in his dream – Diablo and blood on a truck?. Juan Diego’s foot throbs.
(“Not that their hips jiggled!) is referring back to the Guadalupe doll in the truck – part of the memory/dream.
** memories, dreams, Catholics, reading, language and interpretation, writing, mis-reading/understanding, sex,
* Juan Diego’s foot injury, new character in Bonshaw –
CHAPTER 6 Sex and Faith
With the women in the underground passage to the the hotel – it’s Christmas time and there are Santas and creches including a Mary statue. But the baby Jesus is missing – (symbolic?) and the women discuss this – (a face-lift?) – Juan Diego sounds angry – (something which shows up in his novels – Irving?) Then to the train to Kowloon.
“He had an axe to grind – not with people of faith, or believers of any kind, but with certain social and political policies of the Catholic Church.”
Dorothy is apparently very strong, hauling both suitcases – (Mary Monster?) hers and Juan Diego’s. In a full-length mirror he sees:
“…his two companions weren’t visible alongside him: curiously he did not see these two efficient women reflected in the mirror.”
Now to the hotel in Hong Kong where he only thinks about the Viagra but still no beta-blocker. He lusts and lusts, but he falls asleep.
The next morning the three of them head off to the train to Kowloon station with Juan Diego very aware of the women sexually. Later he can remember nothing of the trip – however (!) when a photo is suggested the women don’t want it, a Chinese man takes it, Dorothy erases it and the Chinese people are very upset at something about the pictures (the women aren’t in it. – vampires).
Then Mariam asks about the missionary in Juan Diego’s book “A Story set in Motion by the Virgin Mary.” Juan Diego thinks about Edward Bonshaw and the “life-saving day.”
Transition to a bit of memory – Hoping for a miracle, Rivera is driving the young injured Juan Diego to the Templo de la Comania de Jesus and this is exactly where Pepe and Bonshaw are headed. (Much foreshadowing.)
In and out of memory here in addition to what was in Juan Diego’s book – Dorothy and Miriam argue about Ignatius Loyola and the mule story – but, from Juan Diego:
“But, as always… Ignatius seeks God’s will on the matter.”
“It’s about sex and faith,” Juan Diego mumbled; he wasn’t being diplomatic – he meant it. The two women could tell he did.
And the Chinese girl recognizes the author – Juan Diego cannot stop crying – “sobbing.”
The women talk about what happens to the mother in Juan Diego’s book – she’s crushed by a statue of the Virgin Mary. Autobiographical questions from the women.
Juan Diego is overcome with emotion due to the lack of beta-blockers – he cries and lusts and misses everyone all at the same time. But he remembers Bonshaw talking about yielding to God’s will and doing it – “to the greater glory of God.”
Dorothy is an awful lot like Juan Diego’s sister Lupe.
** memory, Mary, authorship- biography, readership and memory, sex, vampires, travel – travel –