In Avenue of Mysteries, Juan Diego—a fourteen-year-old boy, who was born and grew up in Mexico—has a thirteen-year-old sister. Her name is Lupe, and she thinks she sees what’s coming—specifically, her own future and her brother’s. Lupe is a mind reader; she doesn’t know what everyone is thinking, but she knows what most people are thinking. Regarding what has happened, as opposed to what will, Lupe is usually right about the past; without your telling her, she knows all the worst things that have happened to you.
Lupe doesn’t know the future as accurately. But consider what a terrible burden it is, if you believe you know the future—especially your own future, or, even worse, the future of someone you love. What might a thirteen-year-old girl be driven to do, if she thought she could change the future?
As an older man, Juan Diego will take a trip to the Philippines, but what travels with him are his dreams and memories; he is most alive in his childhood and early adolescence in Mexico. As we grow older—most of all, in what we remember and what we dream—we live in the past. Sometimes, we live more vividly in the past than in the present.
Avenue of Mysteries is the story of what happens to Juan Diego in the Philippines, where what happened to him in the past—in Mexico—collides with his future.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:March 2, 1942
Place of Birth:Exeter, New Hampshire
Education:B.A., University of New Hampshire, 1965; also studied at University of Vienna; M.F.A., Iowa Writers' Workshop, 1967
Read an Excerpt
Avenue of Mysteries • 1 •
Occasionally, Juan Diego would make a point of saying, “I’m a Mexican—I was born in Mexico, I grew up there.” More recently, he was in the habit of saying, “I’m an American—I’ve lived in the United States for forty years.” Or, in an effort to defuse the nationality issue, Juan Diego liked to say, “I’m a midwesterner—in fact, I’m an Iowan.”
He never said he was a Mexican American. It wasn’t only that Juan Diego disliked the label, though he thought of it as such and he did dislike it. What Juan Diego believed was that people were always seeking a commonality with the Mexican-American experience, and he could find no common ground in his own experience; more truthfully, he didn’t look for it.
What Juan Diego said was that he’d had two lives—two separate and distinctly different lives. The Mexican experience was his first life, his childhood and early adolescence. After he left Mexico—he’d never gone back—he had a second life, the American or midwestern experience. (Or was he also saying that, relatively speaking, not a whole lot had happened to him in his second life?)
What Juan Diego always maintained was that, in his mind—in his memories, certainly, but also in his dreams—he lived and relived his two lives on “parallel tracks.”
A dear friend of Juan Diego’s—she was also his doctor—teased him about the so-called parallel tracks. She told him he was either a kid from Mexico or a grown-up from Iowa all the time. Juan Diego could be an argumentative person, but he agreed with her about that.
• • •
BEFORE THE BETA-BLOCKERS HAD disturbed his dreams, Juan Diego told his doctor friend that he used to wake up to the “gentlest” of his recurrent nightmares. The nightmare he had in mind was really a memory of the formative morning he became a cripple. In truth, only the beginning of the nightmare or the memory was gentle, and the origin of this episode was something that happened in Oaxaca, Mexico—in the neighborhood of the city dump, in 1970—when Juan Diego was fourteen.
In Oaxaca, he was what they called a dump kid (un niño de la basura); he lived in a shack in Guerrero, the colony for families who worked in the dump (el basurero). In 1970, there were only ten families living in Guerrero. At that time, about a hundred thousand people lived in the city of Oaxaca; many of them didn’t know that the dump kids did most of the picking and sorting through stuff at the basurero. The children had the job of separating the glass, aluminum, and copper.
People who knew what the dump kids did called them los pepenadores—“the scavengers.” At fourteen, that was who Juan Diego was: a dump kid and a scavenger. But the boy was also a reader; the word got around that un niño de la basura had taught himself to read. Dump kids weren’t the biggest readers, as a rule, and young readers of any origin or background are rarely self-taught. That was why the word got around, and how the Jesuits, who put such a high priority on education, heard about the boy from Guerrero. The two old Jesuit priests at the Temple of the Society of Jesus referred to Juan Diego as the “dump reader.”
“Someone should bring the dump reader a good book or two—God knows what the boy finds to read in the basurero!” either Father Alfonso or Father Octavio said. Whenever one of these two old priests said “someone should” do anything, Brother Pepe was always the one who did it. And Pepe was a big reader.
In the first place, Brother Pepe had a car, and, because he’d come from Mexico City, getting around Oaxaca was relatively easy for him. Pepe was a teacher at the Jesuit school; it had long been a successful school—everyone knew the Society of Jesus was good at running schools. On the other hand, the Jesuit orphanage was relatively new (it had been less than ten years since they’d remodeled the former convent as an orphanage), and not everyone was crazy about the orphanage’s name—to some, Hogar de los Niños Perdidos was a long name that sounded a little severe.
But Brother Pepe had put his heart into the school and the orphanage; over time, most of those tender souls who objected to the sound of “Home of the Lost Children” would certainly admit that the Jesuits ran a pretty good orphanage, too. Besides, everyone had already shortened the name of the place—“Lost Children,” people called it. One of the nuns who looked after the children was more blunt about it; to be fair, Sister Gloria must have been referring to a couple of misbehaving kids, not to all the orphans, when she muttered, occasionally, “los perdidos”—surely “the lost ones” was a name the old nun intended for only a few of the more exasperating children.
Luckily, it was not Sister Gloria who brought the books to the basurero for the young dump reader; if Gloria had chosen the books and been their deliverer, Juan Diego’s story might have ended before it began. But Brother Pepe put reading on a pedestal; he was a Jesuit because the Jesuits had made him a reader and introduced him to Jesus, not necessarily in that order. It was best not to ask Pepe if reading or Jesus had saved him, or which one had saved him more.
At forty-five, he was too fat—a “cherubic-looking figure, if not a celestial being,” was how Brother Pepe described himself.
Pepe was the epitome of goodness. He embodied that mantra from Saint Teresa of Ávila: “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us.” He made her holy utterance foremost among his daily prayers. No wonder children loved him.
But Brother Pepe had never been to the Oaxaca basurero before. In those days, they burned everything they could in the dump; there were fires everywhere. (Books were useful fire starters.) When Pepe stepped out of his VW Beetle, the smell of the basurero and the heat of the fires were what he’d imagined Hell would be like—only he hadn’t imagined children working there.
There were some very good books in the backseat of the little Volkswagen; good books were the best protection from evil that Pepe had actually held in his hands—you could not hold faith in Jesus in your hands, not in quite the same way you could hold good books.
“I’m looking for the reader,” Pepe told the dump workers, both the adults and the children. Los pepenadores, the scavengers, gave Pepe a look full of contempt. It was evident that they did not value reading. One of the adults spoke first—a woman, perhaps Pepe’s age or a little younger, probably the mother of one or more of the scavengers. She told Pepe to look for Juan Diego in Guerrero—in el jefe’s shack.
Brother Pepe was confused; maybe he’d misunderstood her. El jefe was the dump boss—he was the head of the basurero. Was the reader el jefe’s child? Pepe asked the woman worker.
Several dump kids laughed; then they turned away. The adults didn’t think it was funny, and the woman said only: “Not exactly.” She pointed in the direction of Guerrero, which was nestled into a hillside below the basurero. The shacks in the colony had been assembled from materials the workers had found in the dump, and el jefe’s shack was the one at the periphery of the colony—at the edge nearest to the dump.
Black columns of smoke stood high above the basurero, pillars of blackness reaching into the sky. Vultures circled overhead, but Pepe saw that there were carrion eaters above and below; dogs were everywhere in the basurero, skirting the hellfires and grudgingly giving ground to the men in trucks but to almost no one else. The dogs were uneasy company around the children, because both were scavenging—if not for the same stuff. (The dogs weren’t interested in glass or aluminum or copper.) The dump dogs were mostly strays, of course, and some were dying.
Pepe wouldn’t be in the basurero long enough to spot the dead dogs, or to see what became of them—they were burned, but not always before the vultures found them.
Pepe found more dogs down the hill, in Guerrero. These dogs had been adopted by the families who worked in the basurero and lived in the colony. Pepe thought the dogs in Guerrero looked better fed, and they behaved more territorially than the dogs in the dump. They were more like the dogs in any neighborhood; they were edgier and more aggressive than the dump dogs, who tended to slink in an abject or furtive manner, though the dump dogs had a sly way of holding their ground.
You wouldn’t want to be bitten by a dog in the basurero, or by one in Guerrero—Pepe was pretty sure about that. After all, most of the dogs in Guerrero originally came from the dump.
Brother Pepe took the sick kids from Lost Children to see Dr. Vargas at the Red Cross hospital on Armenta y López; Vargas made it his priority to treat the orphanage kids and the dump kids first. Dr. Vargas had told Pepe that those kids who were the scavengers in the basurero were in the greatest danger from the dogs and from the needles—there were lots of discarded syringes with used needles in the dump. Un niño de la basura could easily get pricked by an old needle.
“Hepatitis B or C, tetanus—not to mention any imaginable form of bacterial infection,” Dr. Vargas had told Pepe.
“And a dog at the basurero, or any dog in Guerrero, could have rabies, I suppose,” Brother Pepe had said.
“The dump kids simply must get the rabies shots, if one of those dogs bites them,” Vargas said. “But the dump kids are more than usually afraid of needles. They’re afraid of those old needles, which they should be afraid of, but this makes them afraid of getting shots! If dogs bite them, the dump kids are more afraid of the shots than they are of rabies, which is not good.” Vargas was a good man, in Pepe’s opinion, though Vargas was a man of science, not a believer. (Pepe knew that Vargas could be a strain, spiritually speaking.)
Pepe was thinking about the rabies danger when he got out of his VW Beetle and approached el jefe’s shack in Guerrero; Pepe’s arms were wrapped tightly around the good books he’d brought for the dump reader, and he was wary of all the barking and unfriendly-looking dogs. “¡Hola!” the plump Jesuit cried at the screen door to the shack. “I have books for Juan Diego, the reader—good books!” He stepped back from the screen door when he heard the fierce growling from inside el jefe’s shack.
That woman worker at the basurero had said something about the dump boss—el jefe himself. She’d called him by name. “You won’t have trouble recognizing Rivera,” the woman had told Pepe. “He’s the one with the scariest-looking dog.”
But Brother Pepe couldn’t see the dog who was growling so fiercely behind the shack’s screen door. He took a second step away from the door, which opened suddenly, revealing not Rivera or anyone resembling a dump boss; the small but scowling person in the doorway of el jefe’s shack wasn’t Juan Diego, either, but a dark-eyed, feral-looking girl—the dump reader’s younger sister, Lupe, who was thirteen. Lupe’s language was incomprehensible—what came out of her mouth didn’t even sound like Spanish. Only Juan Diego could understand her; he was his sister’s translator, her interpreter. And Lupe’s strange speech was not the most mysterious thing about her; the girl was a mind reader. Lupe knew what you were thinking—occasionally, she knew more about you than that.
“It’s a guy with a bunch of books!” Lupe shouted into the shack, inspiring a cacophony of barking from the disagreeable-sounding but unseen dog. “He’s a Jesuit, and a teacher—one of the do-gooders from Lost Children.” Lupe paused, reading Brother Pepe’s mind, which was in a state of mild confusion; Pepe hadn’t understood a word she’d said. “He thinks I’m retarded. He’s worried that the orphanage won’t accept me—the Jesuits would presume I’m uneducable!” Lupe called to Juan Diego.
“She’s not retarded!” the boy cried out from somewhere inside the shack. “She understands everything!”
“I guess I’m looking for your brother?” the Jesuit asked the girl. Pepe smiled at her, and she nodded; Lupe could see he was sweating in his herculean effort to hold all the books.
“The Jesuit is nice—he’s just a little overweight,” the girl called to Juan Diego. She stepped back inside the shack, holding the screen door open for Brother Pepe, who entered cautiously; he was looking everywhere for the growling but invisible dog.
The boy, the dump reader himself, was barely more visible. The bookshelves surrounding him were better built than most, as was the shack itself—el jefe’s work, Pepe guessed. The young reader didn’t appear to be a likely carpenter. Juan Diego was a dreamy-looking boy, as many youthful but serious readers are; the boy looked a lot like his sister, too, and both of them reminded Pepe of someone. At the moment, the sweating Jesuit couldn’t think who the someone was.
“We both look like our mother,” Lupe told him, because she knew the visitor’s thoughts. Juan Diego, who was lying on a deteriorated couch with an open book on his chest, did not translate for Lupe this time; the young reader chose to leave the Jesuit teacher in the dark about what his clairvoyant sister had said.
“What are you reading?” Brother Pepe asked the boy.
“Local history—Church history, you might call it,” Juan Diego said.
“It’s boring,” Lupe said.
“Lupe says it’s boring—I guess it’s a little boring,” the boy agreed.
“Lupe reads, too?” Brother Pepe asked. There was a piece of plywood perfectly supported by two orange crates—a makeshift table, but a pretty good one—next to the couch. Pepe put his heavy armload of books there.
“I read aloud to her—everything,” Juan Diego told the teacher. The boy held up the book he was reading. “It’s a book about how you came third—you Jesuits,” Juan Diego explained. “Both the Augustinians and the Dominicans came to Oaxaca before the Jesuits—you got to town third. Maybe that’s why the Jesuits aren’t such a big deal in Oaxaca,” the boy continued. (This sounded startlingly familiar to Brother Pepe.)
“And the Virgin Mary overshadows Our Lady of Guadalupe—Guadalupe gets shortchanged by Mary and by Our Lady of Solitude,” Lupe started babbling, incomprehensibly. “La Virgen de la Soledad is such a local hero in Oaxaca—the Solitude Virgin and her stupid burro story! Nuestra Señora de la Soledad shortchanges Guadalupe, too. I’m a Guadalupe girl!” Lupe said, pointing to herself; she appeared to be angry about it.
Brother Pepe looked at Juan Diego, who seemed fed up with the virgin wars, but the boy translated all this.
“I know that book!” Pepe cried.
“Well, I’m not surprised—it’s one of yours,” Juan Diego told him; he handed Pepe the book he’d been reading. The old book smelled strongly like the basurero, and some of the pages looked singed. It was one of those academic tomes—Catholic scholarship of the kind almost no one reads. The book had come from the Jesuits’ own library at the former convent, now the Hogar de los Niños Perdidos. Many of the old and unreadable books had been sent to the dump when the convent was remodeled to accommodate the orphans, and to make more shelf space for the Jesuit school.
No doubt, Father Alfonso or Father Octavio had decided which books were bound for the basurero, and which were worth saving. The story of the Jesuits arriving third in Oaxaca might not have pleased the two old priests, Pepe thought; besides, the book had probably been written by an Augustinian or a Dominican—not by a Jesuit—and that alone might have condemned the book to the hellfires of the basurero. (The Jesuits did indeed put a priority on education, but no one ever said they weren’t competitive.)
“I brought you some books that are more readable,” Pepe said to Juan Diego. “Some novels, good storytelling—you know, fiction,” the teacher said encouragingly.
“I don’t know what I think of fiction,” the thirteen-year-old Lupe said suspiciously. “Not all storytelling is what it’s cracked up to be.”
“Don’t get started on that,” Juan Diego said to her. “The dog story was just too grown-up for you.”
“What dog story?” Brother Pepe asked.
“Don’t ask,” the boy told him, but it was too late; Lupe was groping around, pawing through the books on the shelves—there were books everywhere, saved from burning.
“That Russian guy,” the intense-looking girl was saying.
“Did she say ‘Russian’—you don’t read Russian, do you?” Pepe asked Juan Diego.
“No, no—she means the writer. The writer is a Russian guy,” the boy explained.
“How do you understand her?” Pepe asked him. “Sometimes I’m not sure if it’s Spanish she’s speaking—”
“Of course it’s Spanish!” the girl cried; she’d found the book that had given her doubts about storytelling, about fiction. She handed the book to Brother Pepe.
“Lupe’s language is just a little different,” Juan Diego was saying. “I can understand it.”
“Oh, that Russian,” Pepe said. The book was a collection of Chekhov’s stories, The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories.
“It’s not about the dog at all,” Lupe complained. “It’s about people who aren’t married to each other having sex.”
Juan Diego, of course, translated this. “All she cares about is dogs,” the boy told Pepe. “I told her the story was too grown-up for her.”
Pepe was having trouble remembering “The Lady with the Dog”; naturally, he couldn’t recall the dog at all. It was a story about an illicit relationship—that was all he could remember. “I’m not sure this is age-appropriate for either of you,” the Jesuit teacher said, laughing uncomfortably.
That was when Pepe realized it was an English translation of Chekhov’s stories, an American edition; it had been published in the 1940s. “But this is in English!” Brother Pepe cried. “You understand English?” he asked the wild-looking girl. “You can read English, too?” the Jesuit asked the dump reader. Both the boy and his younger sister shrugged. Where have I seen that shrug before? Pepe thought to himself.
“From our mother,” Lupe answered him, but Pepe couldn’t understand her.
“What about our mother?” Juan Diego asked his sister.
“He was wondering about the way we shrug,” Lupe answered him.
“You have taught yourself to read English, too,” Pepe said slowly to the boy; the girl suddenly gave him the shivers, for no known reason.
“English is just a little different—I can understand it,” the boy told him, as if he were still talking about understanding his sister’s strange language.
Pepe’s mind was racing. They were extraordinary children—the boy could read anything; maybe there was nothing he couldn’t understand. And the girl—well, she was different. Getting her to speak normally would be a challenge. Yet weren’t they, these dump kids, precisely the kind of gifted students the Jesuit school was seeking? And didn’t the woman worker at the basurero say that Rivera, el jefe, was “not exactly” the young reader’s father? Who was their father, and where was he? And there was no sign of a mother—not in this unkempt shack, Pepe was thinking. The carpentry was okay, but everything else was a wreck.
“Tell him we are not Lost Children—he found us, didn’t he?” Lupe said suddenly to her talented brother. “Tell him we’re not orphanage material. I don’t need to speak normally—you understand me just fine,” the girl told Juan Diego. “Tell him we have a mother—he probably knows her!” Lupe cried. “Tell him Rivera is like a father, only better. Tell him el jefe is better than any father!”
“Slow down, Lupe!” Juan Diego said. “I can’t tell him anything if you don’t slow down.” It was quite a lot to tell Brother Pepe, beginning with the fact that Pepe probably knew the dump kids’ mother—she worked nights on Zaragoza Street, but she also worked for the Jesuits; she was their principal cleaning woman.
That the dump kids’ mother worked nights on Zaragoza Street made her a likely prostitute, and Brother Pepe did know her. Esperanza was the Jesuits’ best cleaning woman—no question where the children’s dark eyes and their insouciant shrugs came from, though the origin of the boy’s genius for reading was unclear.
Tellingly, the boy didn’t use the “not exactly” phrase when he spoke of Rivera, el jefe, as a potential father. The way Juan Diego put it was that the dump boss was “probably not” his father, yet Rivera could be the boy’s father—there was a “maybe” involved; that was how Juan Diego expressed it. As for Lupe, el jefe was “definitely not” her father. It was Lupe’s impression that she had many fathers, “too many fathers to name,” but the boy passed over this biological impossibility fairly quickly. He said simply that Rivera and their mother had “no longer been together in that way” when Esperanza became pregnant with Lupe.
It was quite a lengthy but calm manner of storytelling—the way the dump reader presented his and Lupe’s impressions of the dump boss as “like a father, only better,” and how the dump kids saw themselves as having a home. Juan Diego echoed Lupe that they were “not orphanage material.” Embellishing, a little, the way Juan Diego put it was: “We’re not present or future Lost Children. We have a home here, in Guerrero. We have a job in the basurero!”
But, for Brother Pepe, this raised the question of why these children weren’t working in the basurero alongside los pepenadores. Why weren’t Lupe and Juan Diego out there scavenging with the other dump kids? Were they treated better or worse than the children of the other families who worked in the basurero and lived in Guerrero?
“Better and worse,” Juan Diego told the Jesuit teacher, without hesitation. Brother Pepe recalled the other dump kids’ contempt for reading, and only God knew what those little scavengers made of the wild-looking, unintelligible girl who gave Pepe the shivers.
“Rivera won’t let us leave the shack unless he’s with us,” Lupe explained. Juan Diego not only translated for her; he elaborated on this detail.
Rivera truly protected them, the boy told Pepe. El jefe was both like a father and better than a father because he provided for the dump kids and he watched over them. “And he doesn’t ever beat us,” Lupe interrupted him; Juan Diego dutifully translated this, too.
“I see,” Brother Pepe said. But he was only beginning to see what the brother and sister’s situation was: indeed, it was better than the situation for many children who separated the stuff they picked through and sorted in the basurero. And it was worse for them, too—because Lupe and Juan Diego were resented by the scavengers and their families in Guerrero. These two dump kids may have had Rivera’s protection (for which they were resented), but el jefe was not exactly their father. And their mother, who worked nights on Zaragoza Street, was a prostitute who didn’t actually live in Guerrero.
There is a pecking order everywhere, Brother Pepe thought sadly to himself.
“What’s a pecking order?” Lupe asked her brother. (Pepe was now beginning to understand that the girl knew what he was thinking.)
“A pecking order is how the other niños de la basura feel superior to us,” Juan Diego said to Lupe.
“Precisely,” Pepe said, a little uneasily. Here he’d come to meet the dump reader, the fabled boy from Guerrero, bringing him good books, as a good teacher would—only to discover that he, Pepe, the Jesuit himself, was the one with a lot to learn.
That was when the constantly complaining but unseen dog showed itself, if it was actually a dog. The weaselly little creature crawled out from under the couch—more rodential than canine, Pepe thought.
“His name is Dirty White—he’s a dog, not a rat!” Lupe said indignantly to Brother Pepe.
Juan Diego explained this, but the boy added: “Dirty White is a dirty little coward—an ungrateful one.”
“I saved him from death!” Lupe cried. Even as the skinny, hunched dog sidled toward the girl’s outstretched arms, his lips involuntarily curled, baring his pointed teeth.
“He should be called Saved from Death, not Dirty White,” Juan Diego said, laughing. “She found him with his head caught in a milk carton.”
“He’s a puppy. He was starving,” Lupe protested.
“Dirty White is still starving for something,” Juan Diego said.
“Stop,” his sister told him; the puppy shivered in her arms.
Pepe tried to repress his thoughts, but this was harder than he’d imagined it would be; he decided it would be best to leave, even abruptly, rather than allow the clairvoyant girl to read his mind. Pepe didn’t want the thirteen-year-old innocent to know what he was thinking.
He started his VW Beetle; there was no sign of Rivera, or el jefe’s “scariest-looking” dog, as the Jesuit teacher drove away from Guerrero. The spires of black smoke from the basurero were rising all around him, as were the good-hearted Jesuit’s blackest thoughts.
Father Alfonso and Father Octavio looked upon Juan Diego and Lupe’s mother—Esperanza, the prostitute—as the “fallen.” In the minds of the two old priests, there were no fallen souls who had fallen further than prostitutes; there were no miserable creatures of the human kind as lost as these unfortunate women were. Esperanza was hired as a cleaning woman for the Jesuits in an allegedly holy effort to save her.
But don’t these dump kids need saving, too? Pepe wondered. Aren’t los niños de la basura among the “fallen,” or aren’t they in danger of future falling? Or of falling further?
When that boy from Guerrero was a grown-up, complaining to his doctor about the beta-blockers, he should have had Brother Pepe standing beside him; Pepe would have given testimony to Juan Diego’s childhood memories and his fiercest dreams. Even this dump reader’s nightmares were worth preserving, Brother Pepe knew.
• • •
WHEN THESE DUMP KIDS were in their early teens, Juan Diego’s most recurrent dream wasn’t a nightmare. The boy often dreamed of flying—well, not exactly. It was an awkward-looking and peculiar kind of airborne activity, which bore little resemblance to “flying.” The dream was always the same: people in a crowd looked up; they saw that Juan Diego was walking on the sky. From below—that is, from ground level—the boy appeared to be very carefully walking upside down in the heavens. (It also seemed that he was counting to himself.)
There was nothing spontaneous about Juan Diego’s movement across the sky—he was not flying freely, as a bird flies; he lacked the powerful, straightforward thrust of an airplane. Yet, in that oft-repeated dream, Juan Diego knew he was where he belonged. From his upside-down perspective in the sky, he could see the anxious, upturned faces in the crowd.
When he described the dream to Lupe, the boy would also say to his strange sister: “There comes a moment in every life when you must let go with your hands—with both hands.” Naturally, this made no sense to a thirteen-year-old—even to a normal thirteen-year-old. Lupe’s reply was unintelligible, even to Juan Diego.
One time when he asked her what she thought of his dream about walking upside down in the heavens, Lupe was typically mysterious, though Juan Diego could at least comprehend her exact words.
“It’s a dream about the future,” the girl said.
“Whose future?” Juan Diego asked.
“Not yours, I hope,” his sister replied, more mysteriously.
“But I love this dream!” the boy had said.
“It’s a death dream,” was all Lupe would say further.
But now, as an older man, since he’d been taking the beta-blockers, his childhood dream of walking on the sky was lost to him, and Juan Diego didn’t get to relive the nightmare of that long-ago morning he was crippled in Guerrero. The dump reader missed that nightmare.
He’d complained to his doctor. “The beta-blockers are blocking my memories!” Juan Diego cried. “They are stealing my childhood—they are robbing my dreams!” To his doctor, all this hysteria meant was that Juan Diego missed the kick his adrenaline gave him. (Beta-blockers really do a number on your adrenaline.)
His doctor, a no-nonsense woman named Rosemary Stein, had been a close friend of Juan Diego’s for twenty years; she was familiar with what she thought of as his hysterical overstatements.
Dr. Stein knew very well why she had prescribed the beta-blockers for Juan Diego; her dear friend was at risk of having a heart attack. He not only had very high blood pressure (170 over 100), but he was pretty sure his mother and one of his possible fathers had died of a heart attack—his mother, definitely, at a young age. Juan Diego had no shortage of adrenaline—the fight-or-flight hormone, which is released during moments of stress, fear, calamity, and performance anxiety, and during a heart attack. Adrenaline also shunts blood away from the gut and viscera—the blood goes to your muscles, so that you can run. (Maybe a dump reader has more need of adrenaline than most people.)
Beta-blockers do not prevent heart attacks, Dr. Stein had explained to Juan Diego, but these medications block the adrenaline receptors in the body and thus shield the heart from the potentially devastating effect of the adrenaline released during a heart attack.
“Where are my damn adrenaline receptors?” Juan Diego had asked Dr. Stein. (“Dr. Rosemary,” he called her—just to tease her.)
“In the lungs, blood vessels, heart—almost everywhere,” she’d answered him. “Adrenaline makes your heart beat faster. You breathe harder, the hair on your arms stands up, your pupils dilate, your blood vessels constrict—not good, if you’re having a heart attack.”
“What could be good, if I’m having a heart attack?” Juan Diego had asked her. (Dump kids are persistent—they’re stubborn types.)
“A quiet, relaxed heart—one that beats slowly, not faster and faster,” Dr. Stein said. “A person on beta-blockers has a slow pulse; your pulse cannot increase, no matter what.”
There were consequences of lowering your blood pressure; a person on beta-blockers should be a little careful not to drink too much alcohol, which raises your blood pressure, but Juan Diego didn’t really drink. (Well, okay, he drank beer, but only beer—and not too much, he thought.) And beta-blockers reduce the circulation of blood to your extremities; your hands and feet feel cold. Yet Juan Diego didn’t complain about this side effect—he’d even joked to his friend Rosemary that feeling cold was a luxury for a boy from Oaxaca.
Some patients on beta-blockers bemoan the accompanying lethargy, both a weariness and a reduced tolerance for physical exercise, but at his age—Juan Diego was now fifty-four—what did he care? He’d been a cripple since he was fourteen; limping was his exercise. He’d had forty years of sufficient limping. Juan Diego didn’t want more exercise!
He did wish he felt more alive, not so “diminished”—the word he used to describe how the beta-blockers made him feel, when he talked to Rosemary about his lack of sexual interest. (Juan Diego didn’t say he was impotent; even to his doctor, the diminished word was where he began, and ended, the conversation.)
“I didn’t know you were in a sexual relationship,” Dr. Stein said to him; in fact, she knew very well that he wasn’t in one.
“My dear Dr. Rosemary,” Juan Diego said. “If I were in a sexual relationship, I believe I would be diminished.”
She’d given him a prescription for Viagra—six tablets a month, 100 milligrams—and told him to experiment.
“Don’t wait till you meet someone,” Rosemary said.
He hadn’t waited; he’d not met anyone, but he had experimented. Dr. Stein had refilled his prescription every month. “Maybe half a tablet is sufficient,” Juan Diego told her, after his experiments. He hoarded the extra tablets. He’d not complained about any of the side effects from the Viagra. It allowed him to have an erection; he could have an orgasm. Why would he mind a stuffy nose?
Another side effect of beta-blockers is insomnia, but Juan Diego found nothing new or particularly upsetting about that; to lie awake in the dark with his demons was almost comforting. Many of Juan Diego’s demons had been his childhood companions—he knew them so well, they were as familiar as friends.
An overdose of beta-blockers can cause dizziness, even fainting spells, but Juan Diego wasn’t worried about dizziness or fainting. “Cripples know how to fall—falling is no big deal to us,” he told Dr. Stein.
Yet, even more than the erectile dysfunction, it was his disjointed dreams that disturbed him; Juan Diego said that his memories and his dreams lacked a followable chronology. 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 had happened to him at that crucial time—were what Juan Diego had instead of religion.
Close friend though she was, Dr. Rosemary Stein didn’t know everything about Juan Diego; she knew very little about her friend’s childhood. To Dr. Stein, it probably appeared to come out of nowhere when Juan Diego spoke with uncharacteristic sharpness to her, seemingly about the beta-blockers. “Believe me, Rosemary, if the beta-blockers had taken my religion away, I would not complain to you about that! On the contrary, I would ask you to prescribe beta-blockers for everyone!”
This amounted to more of her passionate friend’s hysterical overstatements, Dr. Stein thought. After all, he’d burned his hands saving books from burning—even books about Catholic history. But Rosemary Stein knew only bits and pieces about Juan Diego’s life as a dump kid; she knew more about her friend when he was older. She didn’t really know the boy from Guerrero.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Avenue of Mysteries includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Juan Diego—a Mexican-born writer—leaves his home in Iowa and heads to the Philippines in order to honor a promise made long ago. During his travels he sometimes chooses not to take the medicine prescribed for his heart because it makes him feel “diminished,” and he begins to experience his past much more vividly than his present. Juan Diego dreams of his youth in Mexico and gets lost in recollections of the shocking moments and mysterious happenings that made him who he is: of his mind-reading sister, Lupe, and his mother, Esperanza; Rivera, the man who was “probably not” his father; the loving couple who adopted him; and the colleagues, clergy, and circus performers who changed his life.
Irving’s fourteenth novel explores the hold the past has upon us and the tension—both cultural and personal—between faith and reason. The tale of one man from the Mexican basura reveals a sweeping allegory of all that is mysterious: the incomprehensible and unfathomable things we struggle to make sense of and of the strange events, coincidences, and convergences that shape our course and fill our life with wonder.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Where does the title of the book come from? Why do you think Irving chose it? What is the Avenue of Mysteries and why is it important to Juan Diego? How does the title correspond to the major themes of the book? What are some examples of mysteries in the novel? Are they ever demystified or explained? How do Juan Diego, Lupe, Vargas, and the other characters respond to and feel about mysteries? Do they share a unified point of view?
2. At the beginning of the novel, readers learn that Juan Diego doesn’t want to be identified as Mexican American. Why? What does this tell us about him? How does Juan Diego choose to identify himself?
3. What are the “two lives” that Juan Diego says he lived and why does he say that he lived them “on parallel tracks”? Where does Juan Diego say is where he “lived most confidently, and with the sweetest sense of knowing who he was”?
4. Does Avenue of Mysteries ultimately suggest whether such a thing as fate exists? Does Juan Diego’s life seem to be determined by fate, by his own choices, or by coincidence? How do Lupe’s predictions contribute to a dialogue about fate in the novel?
5. Evaluate the treatment of religion and faith in the novel. Consider the discussions of religion that take place between Juan Diego and his sister, between Vargas and Eduardo, and between Eduardo and Juan Diego. Which of the characters have religious faith and which do not? What are the reasons for their faith or lack thereof? What causes Juan Diego to feel that he had “an ax to grind . . . with certain social and political policies of the Catholic Church”? What does Juan Diego say that he had “instead of religion”?
6. Who is Flor and what is her relationship to Juan Diego? How does Irving depict the transgender experience? How does Eduardo feel about Flor? What can we learn about love and relationships from her interactions with Eduardo?
7. What does the novel reveal about the relationship between fiction and autobiography? What does Juan Diego say is the most important thing about his novels? Where does Juan Diego say the ideas for his novels come from? What does Juan Diego believe constitutes good writing? Who does Juan Diego believe are the best readers? Do you agree? Why or why not?
8. Evaluate the portrayal of women in the novel. What does the novel indicate about gender and womanhood? What does Lupe’s mind reading reveal about the treatment of women in this society? How do the passages about Guadalupe and the Virgin Mary contribute to this dialogue?
9. Juan Diego embarks on a physical journey to the Phillipines, but he also embarks upon a journey through dreams and memory. Why does he set out on his physical journey and what happens to him along the way? How is he changed by these experiences? Does he ever reach his destination? What other journeys—physical or symbolic—do he and the other characters take? How are they changed?
10. Why do you think Lupe chose to crawl into the lion’s cage? Does Juan Diego understand her motives for doing this? How does he come to terms with her death? Why do you think that Lupe ultimately asked to have a Catholic funeral despite the feelings she expressed about religion?
11. Miriam and Dorothy appear and disappear throughout the book. Who are these women? How does Juan Diego feel about them? Would you say that he trusts them? Why or why not? How do they compare to or differ from the other female figures in the story?
13. Who is el gringo bueno? Why is he in Mexico? What role does he play in Juan Diego’s life? What does Juan Diego promise himself after talking to el gringo bueno?
14. Why does Lupe refer to the statue of the Virgin Mary as “the Mary Monster”? Why does she prefer icons representing Guadalupe to those of the Virgin Mary? How do these icons compare to the statue given to her by el gringo bueno? What was your reaction this gift?
15. Irving has said that he begins his novels by writing the last sentence. Evaluate the final sentence of the book. How does it tie in with the major themes of the book? At the conclusion of the novel, what does the author say that people really want when they die? Do you agree?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Compare Avenue of Mysteries to other novels that include the collision of faith and reason as a theme. What do these books seem to have in common? Which storytelling devices or styles seem to be most successful or persuasive among the various works? Would you say that Irving offers a new or different perspective? Explain.
2. The journey is a universal motif in literature. How does Juan Diego’s journey compare to the ones undertaken by characters in other novels you’ve read? What common themes emerge? Discuss an important journey that you have taken or wish to take. How has it changed your life or how do you believe it might?
3. Consider some of the political and cultural issues addressed in the novel, such as poverty, the Vietnam War and draft dodging, and the AIDS crisis. How does Avenue of Mysteries introduce and treat these topics, and what message does it offer on these subjects?
4. In Avenue of Mysteries, Irving revisits some of the motifs featured in his previous works. Examine and evaluate the recurring motifs in Irving’s oeuvre. What images and symbols recur? Why do you believe Irving chooses to reuse these motifs from book to book?