self-discoveries, Juan regularly falls into deep reveries that dredge up ghosts from the past.
“Many of Juan’s demons had been his childhood companions — he knew them so well, they were as familiar as friends.” His disruptive dreams return him and the reader to Mexico.
Those demons include guardian angels such as an Iowan missionary with a predilection for lurid Hawaiian shirts and self-flagellation, a transvestite prostitute, and the dump boss who looks after Juan, then runs over him.
Juan and Lupe flit from the shack and the dump they call home to the Jesuit orphanage and finally to a circus where Juan trains to be a “skywalker’’ and we learn Lupe’s fate.
As ever, there is no faulting Irving’s fecund imagination. Pages are splashed with vivid colour and thrum with rambunctious energy.
Juan, the novelist, refers to himself as a “keeper of details”, but Irving may just as well be describing himself.
He fashions scenes and builds mini-stories from inanimate objects (urns of ashes, condoms) and creatures (a gecko, a moray eel), and here mines scurrilous comedy from religious iconography (a noseless Virgin Mary, statues that resemble sex dolls).
Even the minor figures in Irving’s rogues’ gallery are memorable, from a randy liontamer to a draft-dodging mescal hippie to a terrifying dog named Diabolo.
Yet despite all this, Avenue of Mysteries is something of a mixed bag. Plot has always been his wife and young family, with his real subject, his unresolved and conflicted relationship with his father and his own unstable identity.
The book begins on Christmas Day 2010 an optional add-on rather than a core ingredient for Irving, and here he dispenses with it completely, preferring a string of loosely connected incidents and revelations.
He over-explains his characters (“Her name was Estrella, the word for ‘star’ ”) and frequently resorts to grating italics.
Irving is a keen recycler of tropes and themes from past novels, and even acknowledges it by having Juan liken novel-writing to dog-paddling: “It feels like you’re going a long way, because it’s a lot of work, but you’re basically covering old ground — you’re hanging out in familiar territory.”
At times that territory is too familiar. However, there is still a great deal to enjoy here — provided we accept the implausible premise (an autodidactic, thoroughly bilingual dump kid) as a flight of fancy. This is another sprawling, roomy, character-led novel with its fair share of hard knocks and lucky breaks. As such, the perennial comparison to Charles Dickens is once again apt, with Irving serving up a childhood as chequered as that of David Copperfield and slyly repurposing the rubbish heaps of Our Mutual Friend.
Ultimately, this is a book about faith, miracles and “what we don’t see coming and what we do”. There is rough and smooth, but the world according to Irving is still a fascinating place.
is a Edinburgh-based reviewer. with Dalgarno’s wife, Jess, in labour. Newly arrived in Australia, the two of them are squatting in the living room of Jess’s mother and stepfather, sharing the space with their 19month-old son Kolya. As they stumble about in the dark, attempting not to wake the sleeping child, they snipe at each other in frustration, Jess telling Paul (as Dalgarno is known in the book) to hurry up, Paul irritably demanding she be patient as he attempts to adjust the shower in the spare bathroom.
It is an interlude that sets the scene for much of what follows. Having arrived in Adelaide with Jess 35 weeks pregnant, no prospect of a job and the continuing expense of maintaining an apartment back in Glasgow rendered unsellable by the global financial crisis (“we were subsidising a stranger’s life in our furnished former dream home”), Paul and Jess quickly find themselves struggling, emotionally and financially.
In a time when our screens are filled with images of people fleeing their homes in fear of their lives, it is tempting to dismiss Dalgarno’s account of his experiences as a First World indulgence. But that would be a mistake, for a couple of reasons. Dalgarno’s memoir is a reminder of the life-changing upheaval of migration, the degree to which it severs those who undertake it from their pasts and the people and places that inhabit them.
As Paul reflects at one point: “To my ears ‘I’m emigrating to Australia’ was shorthand for goodbye — a way of saying you’d never see someone again.”
And he also offers a fascinating and startlingly frank exploration of contemporary masculinity. Increasingly lost, isolated and sleepdeprived, Paul begins to resent his wife and children, sinking deeper and deeper into selfpity and anger, his inner misery reflected in his rapidly expanding waistline.
This sometimes makes for confronting reading. For while parts of the book are genuinely funny, Dalgarno is extremely effective at capturing the textures of his former self’s selfloathing, or his sense of emotional inadequacy in the face of challenges presented by his family and professional life; and, equally impressively, at communicating Paul’s fear that he is becoming a version of his father, a man whose violence and emotional brutality pervades not just the book but Paul’s unsettled sense of identity: “… since childhood, I’d been swimming away from my dad, kicking free of his undertow … yet here I was in my mid-thirties being dragged back like Jonah into his leviathan mouth”.
Of course these are anxieties many men will recognise. Yet while reading And You May Find Yourself I was struck by just how rarely they are discussed, let alone explored with the self-lacerating honesty Dalgarno brings to bear on his former self.
Certainly there are moments when his account feels uncomfortably unresolved, a quality that may well be attributable to the events he is describing being so recent (as may the relative shadowiness of Jess’s fictional presence), but this only makes the book more interesting.
For by denying himself the illusion of distance, Dalgarno demands we engage not just with the personal immensity of his struggles but also their ordinariness and, one suspects, their ubiquity.
most recent novel is Clade.
Detail from the cover of John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries