Monday, February 29, 2016

Book 13: Irving is back, baby!

Back when I read Last Night In Twisted River I gave up on any new John Irving books. Part of my frustration with that book was how the promotion of it involved, repeatedly, people emphasizing how John Irving writes the last line of his books first; so much emphasis was placed on this that I thought the last line of that book must have been pretty phenomenal, almost Gatsby-esque. It wasn't.  The other part of my frustration was more complicated but it boiled down to this: Last Night was an okay book, but not a good John Irving book. I expected more from him, and noting that most of his post Garp output had slowly been downhill, I decided I wouldn't read any more Irving.

I'm not sure, then, how Avenue of Mysteries made it onto my reading list; I must have read a review or something that sounded like maybe Irving was back to form, so I put it on there, and I wasn't disappointed. While Avenue isn't anywhere near The Hotel New Hampshire or The Cider House Rules or A Prayer for Owen Meany, it's better than a lot of Irving's more recent work has been, and something of a departure for him, too.

Avenue, like most of Irving's books, focuses on a writer in an unusual setting; Juan Diego is a middle-aged writer who at the start of the book is setting out for Manila to honor a promise he made to a Vietnam draft dodger many years ago; Juan Diego is going to visit the grave of the draft-dodger's father, only he doesn't know the draft-dodger's name or his father's name.

The story then alternates between Juan Diego's pilgrimage to Manila and flashbacks (mostly via Juan Diego's very vivid dreams) to his childhood in Oaxaca, where he and his sister Lupe were "dump kids," kids working at the Oaxaca dump and living in a little hut there. Juan Diego's and Lupe's mother is a cleaning woman for the Jesuit orphanage and church and also a prostitute, leaving Juan Diego and Lupe to be raised by Rivera, a man who is "probably not" Juan Diego's father.

From there, Irving piles on a fantastic assortment of Irving characters and plot twists; it's almost as though John Irving set out to write the quintessential John Irving book. So successfully does Irving incorporate nearly every single one of his usual tropes, plots, and themes, that at one point I thought to myself that Avenue is part greatest hits tour, part Irving-mixtape.

A small smattering of what Irving includes will show fans of his what I mean: there is a circus, and the cloud-walker (from A Son of the Circus); there is the transvestite (from Garp), prostitutes (from The Hotel New Hampshire), a priest who wears Hawaiian shirts and whips himself (from A Son Of The Circus), dwarves (ditto), a religious statue that gets broken (Owen Meany), a potential-miracle (ditto), a [spoiler alert] mother dying (Hotel New Hampshire), a child with a hard-to-understand voice (Owen Meany), and so on.  Through it all, Irving talks about writing and authorship (including whether autobiography and memoir constitute 'real' writing), religion, family relationships, and a smattering of politics -- this time, the AIDS epidemic of the 80s.

But Irving takes all his familiar ideas and characters and mixes them together very skillfully with some new ideas.  He introduces Miriam and Dorothy, mother and daughter who take Juan Diego under their wing as he starts his trip to Manila, and accompany him for parts of the trip. For much of the book, it's not clear whether Miriam and Dorothy are even real, and after a while it starts to be unclear whether Juan Diego's life is real at all -- although Irving clears that up by the end of the book. (And yes, the ending line is again unmemorable. If Irving really writes his last line first, he's wasting his time.)

A John Irving book is like a Wes Anderson film: both are expected in ways that mark them as entirely their creators' own.  For the most part, it works this time -- in a way that Twisted River didn't work much at all.

The Oaxaca storyline is the far more engaging of the two sides of the story -- but that's the point, I think.  Juan Diego's childhood is so remarkable: in the span of a short time from when the Jesuits discover him, a "dump reader" who has taught himself to read and speak both Spanish and English, through to the time when he actually moves to Iowa -- no spoiler, there, because when we first meet Juan Diego he's in Iowa -- Juan Diego and his sister Lupe -- who can read minds and can tell the future, but whose language is so garbled that only Juan Diego can understand her -- go through a variety of tragicomic events that take them to Mexico City, the circus, and to a phenomenal scene when they scatter their mother's ashes, the emotional climax to the story (or at least the Mexico story).  That part alone could have made a phenomenal book.

The elder Juan Diego's journey is less memorable, probably by design. The elder Juan Diego takes beta blockers for his heart and these suppress his adrenaline and imagination; he spends his trip drifting in and out of sleep, spending time with Dorothy and Miriam, and then time with his former student Clark, who is a writer himself living in the Philippines. The trip has a hazy quality to it; all of Juan Diego's life after moving to Iowa is less vivid and more dreamlike than his childhood. I took it as deliberate, a comment that the colorful dramatic part of Juan Diego's life had passed, or at least that Juan Diego saw it that way -- even though the trip itself, and some of Juan Diego's memories of Iowa City are plenty colorful and dramatic themselves.

What's really remarkable is that the Oaxaca parts of the book feel happy and vibrant and joyful, while the Iowa/Philippines parts of the book feel sad and dirgelike -- even though Oaxaca has many more sad things happening, to all the characters, and Iowa City has mostly happy things happening (although this being an Irving book, tragedy strikes about every other page, sometimes right out of left field.)

With Irving, there is always a feeling that the book has one or more messages; Irving is didactic at times and you get a sense that he wants to demonstrate to you how much he knows about even the smallest details of his writing (like the descriptions of the beta blockers).  The overall message here seems to hover around Irving's occasional ruminations on fate: Juan Diego is told by Lupe that he has a "different future" and Lupe's predictions, we are told, are not always accurate. Juan Diego, in Oaxaca and the Philippines, has his itinerary mapped out for him -- sometimes literally-- by people he barely knows, who just drop into his life (Miriam is described as "the lady who just appears," rightly), and seems to be someone who is just dragged along in the currents of other people's wakes; this is an odd thing for a kid who was so smart that he taught himself to read two languages, and Juan Diego chafes at how his life goes, both overtly and implicitly: he gets angry at people who expect him to be a certain way, but confused whenever he tries to take over his own life.

I'll have to think more before I decide if there really is a message here, or if Irving is just kicking around ideas and concepts.  The book has a more hodgepodge feel to it than many of Irving's books; it feels more jumbled, not quite as planned as his other books. Irving's books read like he wrote them from back to front, with all the pieces falling into place and forming a cohesive whole. This book feels less like that -- and for that reason, a bit more alive than many of Irving's later books have been. Part of that might come from the Mexican settings; when Irving gets away from New Hampshire, he seems to let his imagination run a bit more wild: In A Son Of The Circus, he had a murder mystery that spanned decades alongside a fantastic storyline of a doctor writing screenplays for a hated but popular series of movies. Here, he doesn't quite match that, but the feel is the same (possibly because the two books share so many elements.)

It's interesting that Irving seems more alive and imaginative when he writes about non-New England stories; part of this book talks about the difference between memoir and imagination, and that might have been on Irving's mind as he wrote this book, playing out the arguments in his writing as they were in his head.  Either way, this book feels fresher, less contained, more alive, than Twisted River was, and moreso than many of his books.

If you're an Irving fan, especially of his earlier works, odds are you'll enjoy this book. If you don't like Irving or haven't tried him, don't start with this one: check out The Cider House Rules or A Son Of The Circus or The Hotel New Hampshire instead, and if you like them come back to this one.

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