“Avenue of Mysteries” is unquestionably a John Irving novel. Even if its author’s name were redacted from the reading copy, anyone familiar with his books, from “Setting Free the Bears” to “In One Person,” would be able to guess its provenance. Many of the familiar Irving hallmarks – orphans, transvestites, writer protagonists, mutilated body parts, faithful dogs and dangerous exotic animals – are here. (No wrestling scenes this time, though.)

The inevitable conclusion when contemplating “Avenue of Mysteries” must be, “Yeah, this has to have been written by the guy who wrote ‘The World According to Garp.'”

Set in two time frames, Mexico during the 1970s and the Philippines in early 2011, the novel follows famous novelist Juan Diego Guererro as he travels to Manila in an attempt to fulfill a promise made 40 years earlier to an anonymous young draft dodger. Bedeviled by hypertension and erectile dysfunction, the 54-year-old Juan Diego spends much of his travel time fretting about his prescriptions, especially the way they affect his nocturnal activities.

Irving writes, “He hated the beta-blockers because, in disrupting his dreams, they had cut him off from his childhood, and his childhood mattered more to him than childhood mattered to other adults – to most other adults, Juan Diego thought. His childhood, and the people he’d encountered there – the ones who’d changed his life, or who’d been witnesses to what happened to him at that crucial time – were what Juan Diego had instead of religion.”

The son of a prostitute who also works as a cleaning woman at the local Catholic Church, 14-year-old Juan Diego is a “dump kid,” a resident of the local trash heap. He is an autodidact, having taught himself to read and write without any sort of formal schooling. The “dump reader” also has a severely injured right foot, the result of a truck having accidentally backed over it.

Juan Diego’s younger sister Lupe can accurately read minds and perhaps also tell the future. Due to a congenital throat defect, Lupe’s voice is unintelligible to everyone except her brother, meaning that it is mostly up to him alone to parse her bouts of clairvoyance and prophecy. When their mother is killed in a fall while cleaning a statue of the Virgin Mary, Juan Diego and Lupe are taken to join a local circus. It’s there that Juan Diego attempts to use his crippled foot to his advantage in a high-wire act, and Lupe begins to make cryptic and disturbing remarks about the rag-tag company’s lion, Hombre.

The chapters that recount the adult Juan Diego’s perambulations across South Asia rarely match the power of the childhood scenes. Perhaps that is because the writer is so diminished and passive in them, overwhelmed by memory and depleted by the haphazard deployment of Lopressor and Viagra. He comes more alive, however, in the presence of Miriam and Dorothy, last names unknown, a sinister mother/daughter duo who attach themselves to the middle-aged author and separately make their ways into his bed.

With “Avenue of Mysteries,” Irving takes one of the biggest departures of his nearly 50-year career, perhaps second only to “A Son of the Circus,” which was set in India and featured a serial killer. Although he has repeatedly explored the meaning of fate and destiny and debated the value of organized religion, rarely has Irving allowed the outright occult to be a motivating factor in his fiction. With its ghosts, publicly witnessed miracles and psychically gifted children, there’s no ignoring the mark of the supernatural on “Avenue of Mysteries.”

The novel is an uneasy mix of fantasy and realism. Writing about ghosts, mind-readers and suspected succubi doesn’t come naturally to Irving, and some of the occult revelations consequently don’t land with their intended impact. He’s better at staging emotional scenes in which characters confront their pasts and make a stand for their future. There’s a bravura sequence in which the adult Juan Diego confronts the bully who ridiculed his adoptive parents as a boy. It’s simple, direct and immensely powerful, proof of Juan Diego’s gifts as a storyteller and a reminder of what Irving does best as a writer.

At another point in the narrative, Juan Diego muses that “some unexplainable things are real.” That’s a good position to take in reading and interpreting “Avenue of Mysteries,” whose title alone foreshadows that not everything will be neatly wrapped up at the story’s conclusion.

Puzzling in some aspects, too obvious in others, a little over-stuffed despite its relatively low page-count, Irving’s new novel doesn’t rank among his very best. Nevertheless, it’s good to see that this popular and insightful literary magician still has a few tricks up his sleeve.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

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