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Juan Diego is a famous novelist, 54 but not in the best of health, on a 16-hour flight to Hong Kong. Juan Diego is also a Mexican kid growing up in a dump in Oaxaca. How can these two people be one? At the beginning of Avenue of Mysteries, John Irving’s 14th novel, the older Juan believes they aren’t: “He’d had two lives–two separate and distinctly different lives.”

Irving slowly unveils the miracle by which those two stories are really just one. Juan of the dump teaches himself to read Spanish and English from books other people threw away, in the company of his sister Lupe, who’s blessed with second sight but cursed with a speech impediment that renders her unintelligible to everyone else. Meanwhile, Juan of the novels meets a mother and daughter, both of whom he enjoys hearty Irvingian sex with, and retraces in dreams and memories the long avenue of his life: “What leads us where we’re going, the courses we follow to our ends, what we don’t see coming, and what we do–all this can be mysterious, or simply unseen, or even obvious.”


This appears in the November 16, 2015 issue of TIME.

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