Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Avenue of Mysteries, and Its Place in the John Irving Oeuvre

There's no pulling punches on this one: John Irving's new novel, Avenue of Mysteries, is bad. It's my least favorite of all the books of his I've read — which is 10 of his 14 novels. Yes, indeed, Avenue of Mysteries takes its place at the butt end.

It's a nearly focus-less, spaghetti-at-the-wall story, but with a totally cliché overarching theme of the intersection of dreams and memories. An aging writer named Juan Diego travels to the Philippines to honor a promise he made as a boy. During this trip, he periodically falls asleep and dreams of his childhood in Oaxaca, Mexico. His sister Lupe (the two kids are orphans) can read people's minds. They love dogs. Juan Diego is a good reader. They are devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe. There are ghosts, demons, arguments over Catholicism, arguments over where writers get their ideas (autobiography vs imagination), there is deviant sex, there is a Jesuit-in-training who falls in love with a transvestite prostitute, there are circus performers and lions, the AIDS epidemic, Viagra, etc., etc., etc. 

It's an utter mess. And the worst part? You'd think with all these disparate elements, Irving could at least spin us a good yarn. But no. The story itself — about Juan Diego wondering around in the Philippines with two mysterious women with whom he periodically has sex and the bildungsroman-esque flashbacks/dreams to his childhood in Mexico — is, with a few exceptions here and there (the 75 or so pages about the circus were great!), totally snooze-inducing. It's long, it's often repetitive (he re-uses the same phrases, or tells us the same piece of information several times, often multiple times in the same chapter or on the same page, as if we've forgotten, and he's reminding us...or he just needed a bit of editing), and, at the end of the day, just not the same quality of story for which Irving is known.

So this makes four of Irving's last five novels that haven't even approached the level of his most famous and best works, like A Prayer for Owen Meany, which is still one of my Top Five favorite novels of all time. The Fourth Hand (2001) was okay, but just sort of odd, and a bit thin. Until I Find You (2005) was long and repetitive — my second least favorite of the 10 of Irving's novels I've read. Last Night In Twisted River (2009), however, was fantastic. I really loved it, and I thought this heralded a return to form for Irving. But then In One Person (2012) was decent, but uneven, and then with Avenue of Mysteries (2015), Irving just went off a cliff.

Is this it for him? It's definitely a conspicuous downwards trend. Indeed, I can't even say for sure that Irving, one of my erstwhile favorite writers, is a must-read for me anymore if he publishes anything new. All I do know is that reading this made me really sad, and if you're on the fence about reading it, my recommendation is to read something better.


  1. I thought Last Night in Twisted River was great, too. I haven't read any of Irving's work released after that. Sounds like I'm not missing anything.

    (And, of course, A Prayer for Owen Meany was brilliant.)

  2. Have you read A Son of the Circus? That's the worst Irving novel I've read. It's a shame, because I enjoyed the 11 other novels I've finished so far. I'm hesitant about reading Avenue of Mysteries, because it's sounds very similar to A Son of the Circus.

    1. That's one of the four I haven't read - largely because of the mediocre reviews, like yours. Not sure I'll ever get to it, if it's as bad as this one was.

  3. "Avenue of Mysteries" is a wonderful novel which contains all of the things we love about Irving's novels. I have written the review of this dissertation writing service UK