Is there anything quite as bad as a bad book? I have one big flaw as a book reviewer, I am terrible at reading bad books. When I’m not enjoying a book it is torturous. Such was unfortunately the case with John Irving’s newest novel. Having read about a dozen of Irving’s novels, I’ve long been a fan of his wit and imagination, the intricacy of his plotting, and his ability to keep the reader’s attention. None of those are on display in Avenue of Mysteries.
The main character is Mexican-American novelist Juan Diego Guerrero, an aging writer still living partly in the past even as he tries to complete a long-planned journey to the Philippines. The plot is bifurcated because his completely uninteresting travels and his mildly interesting past as a child prodigy living in a Mexican dump with his preternaturally-gifted sister who can read minds and a cast of eccentric characters including flagellating priests and transvestite prostitutes.
Juan Diego is named after the peasant who encountered Our Lady of Guadalupe, and he and his sister share a fascination with the tale that will bore even the most patient of readers. As tragedy after tragedy befalls Juan Diego, he refers repeatedly to his namesake’s story, in ways that are repetitive and numbing.
I am honestly struggling to write this review because trying to summarize this nonsensical plot is beyond my capabilities. Juan Diego and his sister lose their mother, wind up in an orphanage, join the circus and Juan Diego eventually leaves for Iowa with an unlikely set of new parents.
Nothing much happens to present-day Juan Diego either. He travels to the Philippines with a few stops along the way, re-connecting with a former student and being enticed by an ephemeral mother-daughter duo who slip in and out of his life.
When you’re reading a great or even good book there’s a magic to it that draws you in and makes you invest in the story and care about the people involved. In a bad book that spell is broken and you’re just staring at walls of text, the connection between the words and sentences to events you can imagine in your head is severed, and the artifice of the activity is apparent. The characters are stick-figure mouthpieces for the author’s pet peeves and peccadilloes, and events are engineered to draw things to a pre-ordained conclusion. A bad book isn’t just a waste of time and money, it seriously threatens to ruin fiction as a whole.
I can’t think of a single thing to recommend Avenue of Mysteries. I don’t understand why it exists. It’s a shame that an author whose written so many wonderful books has so lost his way.