Let me give a summary a shot. Juan Diego and his sister, Lupe, grow up living near and working in a Mexican garbage dump. Their mother is a prostitute. Their father is unknown. Lupe is a clairvoyant. Juan Diego was run over by a truck and has a permanent limp. He rescues books from the dump’s fire and teaches himself to read in two languages.
Mr. Irving likes to write about circuses. Before long, Juan Diego and Lupe are living in one. Mr. Irving is attracted to spasmodic cracks of violence. (Think of the foul ball that kills Tabitha in “A Prayer for Owen Meany” or the auto accident in “The World According to Garp.”) Here, Lupe’s ability to read the minds of circus lions leads to some terrible but almost patriotic gore.
Other characters flood in. There’s Flor, a cross-dressing hooker with a heart of gold. There’s Edward, a priest-in-training who packs his own whips for self-flagellation and has the misfortune of falling on a mah-jongg tile in such a way that the letter L is permanently etched, like Harry Potter’s scar, into his forehead.
Does it stand for “loser” or “Lothario”? Edward falls in love with Flor (her “breasts-and-penis combination had made him reconsider celibacy”), and they adopt Juan Diego and move to Iowa. Juan Diego will later, as did Mr. Irving, study at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Many of Mr. Irving’s standard preoccupations emerge. There are haunted Vietnam vets and AIDS patients. There is a botched abortion and an absent father. There is a great deal of commentary on the writer’s life. The policies of the Roman Catholic Church come under sustained fire.
Many miracles, real and imagined, are hashed over. Statues weep, ghost dogs run on rooftops, premonitions abound. “Avenue of Mysteries” is to fiction, it can seem, as the Cirque du Soleil is to gymnastics. There’s athleticism and a degree of difficulty, for sure, in Mr. Irving’s storytelling. There are also a lot of sequins and canned melodrama and hammy showmanship.
Like the wrong kind of uncle, Mr. Irving pulls you aside, by the ear, to provide life lessons. “In every life, I think there’s always a moment when you must decide where you belong.” And: “Some unexplainable things are real.” And: “There comes a time, in every life, when you must let go.” And: “Maybe all great decisions are made without a net.” And, worst fortune cookie ever: “Behind every journey is a reason.”