ORPHANS? Check. Prostitutes? Check. A prescient child embittered by the Catholic church? Check and check.
Like many of Irving’s stories, it unfolds in the present day and through flashbacks. Juan Diego Guerrero is an accomplished novelist in 2011. He’s on his way to the Philippines to fulfill a promise he made decades ago when he was raised on a trash dump in Oaxaca, Mexico. During his travels he is constantly mixing up doses of the beta-blocker Lopressor with Viagra, causing him to fall asleep and vividly dream of his formative years south of the border.
In the flashbacks we meet Juan Diego’s sister Lupe, whose voice and conviction will remind Irving fans of their beloved Owen Meany. Instead of high-pitched yelling, Lupe speaks unintelligible gibberish that only her brother can understand. There’s also a transvestite named Flor, a pair of circus dwarfs named Paco and Beer Belly, and a life-size doll of the Sister of Guadalupe.
The present-day plot isn’t quite so outlandish, but it does involve a horny mother and daughter who accompany Juan Diego on his travels throughout southeast Asia.
Irving’s gift is blending all these crazy plot elements together, stringing along two time lines to tell the story of Juan Diego’s life from start to finish. Or as his omniscient narrator tells it: “The chain of events, the links in our lives — 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 being a John Irving novel, the characters constantly grapple with their faith. A Jesuit teacher forsakes his vows to fall in love with Flor, the broken nose of a Virgin Mary statue plays a central role and 14-year-old Juan Diego questions the right of the Catholic Church to impose sexual mores: “How can they have any authority on sexual matters if they don’t have sex?”
The novel’s tone moves easily from drama to comedy to tragedy, the perfect mix for a film adaptation someday. Casting will probably take time — these characters are so unique. Until then, lose yourself in this tale from one of America’s pre-eminent storytellers. (AP)