Avenue of Mysteries

By John Irving

Simon & Schuster.

448 pages. $28

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Reviewed by Joe Samuel Starnes

nolead ends Millions have marveled at the high-wire act John Irving pulled off in 1978 with his omniscient narration of The World According to Garp. Subsequent best-selling novels, including The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany, continued to build his fame.

Irving's 14th novel, Avenue of Mysteries, spans the life of Juan Diego, a 54-year-old novelist going on 80. This imaginative and wildly ambitious new novel falls in a crumpled heap of excessive details, forced symbolism, and magic realism.

A newly retired professor, Juan Diego travels solo from his home in Iowa to the Philippines by way of Hong Kong while having renewed dreams of his hardscrabble youth in his native Mexico.

These high-definition memories take us back to 1970, when, as a 14-year-old in Oaxaca, he was a scavenger known as a "dump kid" who read voraciously and was close to his sister, Lupe, whose severely impeded speech only he could understand. This forced him to become her translator - an important job, as she had the ability to read minds and sometimes see the future.

While the adult Juan Diego waits for a snow-delayed flight in a New York airport, a cougarish mother and her nubile daughter recognize and overwhelm the timid novelist. It's not long before the daughter, Dorothy, is in his Hong Kong hotel room. Juan Diego lays off his blood-pressure medication in favor of Viagra (and if you like scenes where an older man contemplates his dosages, this book will not disappoint), and his dreams of his past become more vivid. By the time the mother, Miriam, beds him in Manila, his desire for the Viagra overrides the need for his medicine.

The outsize characters on the two vast alternating canvases Irving paints are more varied than the acts in a circus caravan. But the high-wire act of omniscient narration that worked for Irving in Garp does not hold its balance here.

For example, in Oaxaca, there is a Jesuit orphanage whose priests and a missionary, Edward Bonshaw, a naive candidate for the priesthood from Iowa who wears Hawaiian shirts and flagellates himself with a whip, watch out for the precocious Juan Diego. Bonshaw also takes an interest in Flor, a local woman of the night - at least, he thinks she is a woman. Eventually, Juan Diego and his sister join a circus, after their mother, a prostitute who is also the cleaning lady for the Jesuits, dies while dusting a Virgin Mary statue, which Juan Diego and his sister insist came to life momentarily and frightened their mother to death.

Irving packs all this and much, much more into the plot, merging moments of the present with the past. Consider this time-traveling sentence: "His not knowing what Miriam knew (or didn't) about the Viagra made Juan Diego remember the quickly passing dialogue upon his arrival at the circus - when Edward Bonshaw, who knew Flor was a prostitute, learned she was a transvestite."

In this synopsis-defying stewing plot of sex, literature, Catholicism, and circus acts, none of the characters is named John Irving, but it is his all-knowing and sometimes bombastic authorial voice that is the novel's dominant feature. Even Juan Diego's dreams are omniscient, an implausibility Irving tries at one point to explain away. "What can you believe about a fiction writer's dreams?" Irving writes. "In his dreams, obviously, Juan Diego felt free to imagine what Brother Pepe was thinking and feeling."

The prose bloats with parenthetical statements that often explain and repeat what the reader already understands. Irving perhaps even pokes a little self-deprecating fun at his own heavy-handedness when Juan Diego cites a scene from Dickens' David Copperfield. "Nothing more was necessary to say . . .," Irving writes, adding, "But Dickens, being Dickens, gives Copperfield more to say."

In Avenue of Mysteries, Irving always has more to say - whether it serves the story or not.

Joe Samuel Starnes' third novel, "Red Dirt," was published in April. He works in the administration and teaches at Widener University.