Faith, mir­a­cles

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

cast

do­ing

weird

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