uan Diego is a 14-year-old boy who lives as a scavenging dump kid in Guerrero, Mexico. His mother is a cleaner by day and a prostitute by night; his father is unknown and could be anyone. Along with sifting and sorting the glass and copper from the rubbish, and burning dead dogs before the vultures have them, Juan rescues discarded books. Not only has he taught himself to read, he has mastered English. To the awestruck Jesuit priests who run the local orphanage, Juan is the “dump reader”.
He isn’t the only dump kid with talent. His 13-year-old sister, Lupe, can read minds.
“She’s usually right about the past,” Juan tells an incredulous doctor. “She doesn’t do the future as accurately.”
But her creator does. In his 14th novel, Avenue of Mysteries, John Irving charts Juan and Lupe’s various exploits in Mexico in 1970, then fast forwards 40 years to the present, in which an older, wiser and frailer Juan — now a renowned novelist — makes an event-filled and soul-searching trip to The Philippines.
The reader is shuttled to and fro, sometimes seamlessly, sometimes abruptly, and witnesses a typical Irving ragtag wonderful things.
Crucially, Juan’s Asian adventures don’t include Lupe. Early on, as his plane touches down in Hong Kong, he recalls a childhood accident and imagines his head thrashing again “in his long-departed sister’s lap”. Irving’s casually dropped bombshell fires our interest and propels us on to find out what tragedies occurred in Juan’s past and how these have shaped and defined his adult self.
Novels composed of two discrete periods of a character’s life and two disparate settings invariably end up lopsided, with one narrative segment overshadowing and outperforming the other. Irving, though no risk-taking stylist, is a consummate storyteller, and ensures both narrative strands are equally taut, simultaneously knotty and correspondingly loose-ended.
The 54-year-old Juan is single (“out of circulation”), pops beta-blockers and Viagra, and limps with a maimed foot.
On his flight to The Philippines he meets an “oh, so engaging” mother and daughter — the former sexually charged, the latter an out-andout nymphomaniac — who love his books and, before long, him.
In Manila he is driven around and shown the sights by another book lover, reunited with a former creative writing student and taken to the American Cemetery to pay his respects to a soldier killed in World War II.
But as a diversion from his explorations and