John Irving’s ‘Avenue of Mysteries’ vs. Luis Alberto Urrea’s ‘Into the Beautiful North’

by Jess

What could possible motivate me to update a near-defunct lit blog after so many months of absence? Hatred, apparently.

If I asked you to name your least favorite book (let’s say, only counting books you’ve actually finished), could you answer right away? Last week, I would probably have had to give it some thought. The last book I read that I didn’t like too much was The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George. I thought it was pretty dumb. But all-time least favorite?

Well, we have a winner now. John Irving’s latest novel Avenue of Mysteries claims that prize. This is a bad book, plain and simple. The NY Times review ended with this gem: “On the topic of blood flow, this exhausting novel reminded me of an advisory from William S. Burroughs: ‘If, after being exposed to someone’s presence, you feel as if you’ve lost a quart of plasma, avoid that presence.'”

Here are a few of my main issues with AoM. I found the writing to be clunky and repetitive. The scenes that were supposed to be slapsticky physical comedy came off as forced and contrived. Irving seems to have no faith in his readers’ intellect or imagination; for example, in the last scene a nun murmurs (“in Latin,” Irving tells us, because we’re dumb), “Sic transit gloria mundi.” Which is then translated in parenthesis. In contrast, a book I recently reread, A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller, is filled to the brim with Latin phrases. Guess what Miller does? He makes us work for it a little. (Although wikipedia has made that work very easy.) I appreciate that. I don’t like to be insulted by an author. I like for an author to have a little faith in me as a reader. Irving, it would seem, has about as much faith as his Catholic Church-hating protagonist Juan Diego.

The opening of the book makes it clear that the story will run on two parallel tracks: Juan Diego’s childhood in Mexico, which we revisit with JD in his dreams, and present-day Juan Diego’s pilgrimage to the American soldier cemetery in Manila. While the narrative of JD’s childhood was certainly the more compelling story, and would have made a better novel by itself, without the present-day interludes, I also found his writing and portrayal of his characters to be a little hollow. Perhaps his writerly imagination was just not sufficient to inhabit the lives of kids born and raised in a Oaxacan dump.

Here’s a little section I found annoying:

On the other hand, the Jesuit orphanage was relatively new (it has 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 Ninos Perdidos was a long name that sounded a little severe. … over time, most of those tender souls who objected to the sound of “Home of the Lost Children” would certainly admit 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.

Let me tell you why I’m annoyed. No Spanish speakers would ever complain that the name of the orphanage was too long or too severe. My family jokes that everything takes twice as long to say in Spanish as in English. That’s just the way the language works, and no one thinks twice about it. And instead of all that nonsense overwriting, all he had to do was have a character refer to the orphanage as “Ninos Perdidos,” and we’d all know exactly what was going on. That last bit about Sister Gloria is just pablum.

So. Moving on. I guess Irving is a bit sex-obsessed, no one is surprised about that. But I find his sexual references to be juvenile at best, and elsewhere just excessively crass. For example, in the excerpt below, Juan Diego’s prescient little sister Lupe is complaining about some of the thoughts she reads in men’s minds:

“All men ARE always thinking about their penises,” the mind reader said. To a degree, this was the point past which Lupe would no longer allow herself to adore the good gringo. The doomed American had crossed an imaginary line–the PENIS line, perhaps, though Lupe would never have put it that way.

If Lupe wouldn’t say it that way, then why in the ever-loving hell does Irving say it that way?! It makes no sense!

Present-day JD’s story line is primarily concerned with two strange women he meets at the airport, Miriam and Dorothy, ostensibly mother and daughter but perhaps the manifestations of the Virgin Mary and Our Lady of Guadalupe–both of whom manipulate and seduce him multiple times, ultimately distracting him from accomplishing his goal of visiting the cemetery at all. You know, the whole reason for his trip. He seems only mildly confused that the women don’t show up in photos or mirror reflections, and they seem to appear and vanish at will, more concerned with whether he took enough Viagra that day and never once stopping to wonder why two ravenous women would care at all about a crippled, middle-aged B-list author who is, in his own estimation, woefully sexually inadequate. This is never resolved in the novel. It was suggested by several readers in the book discussion I attended that JD was only imagining them, but I think this undermines the credibility of the entire novel. You can’t hang any dramatic tension on a story that is half dreamed (so perhaps not entirely true?) and half imagined (not at all true). You’re left not caring at all what happens to any of the characters because nothing’s real and nothing’s invested in their success or failure. And no, unlike the woman who kept chirping, “It’s magical realism! It’s magic!” to explain away any problems with plot or characterization, you cannot magic your way out of bad writing. And if this is magical realism, it’s magical realism at its absolute worst. (The magical realism woman also claimed Irving set the book in Mexico because magical realism is a “South American thing.” So.)

To fully understand my loathing of Avenue of Mysteries, you would have to go back to October with me and read Luis Alberto Urrea’s Into the Beautiful North. Also a quest novel, also set partly in Mexico, also concerning characters who live in the dump (in Tijuana, not Oaxaca), one comes away from Urrea’s novel with a very different feeling. Instead of a it’s-all-hopeless-shoot-me-now sort of vibe, Urrea leaves us with a sense–despite the racism, xenophobia, poverty, fatherlessness, drugs, and bigotry that his characters confront in the novel–of hope, of faith in humanity, of belief that there is beauty and goodness in the world. (It’s not unlike the character Clark French in Avenue of Mysteries. I suppose Juan Diego would hate Urrea.)

Urrea was born in Mexico and spent a number of years doing relief work with the people who live in the Tijuana dump. His 1996 book By the Lake of Sleeping Children details his experiences there in that “malodorous volcano of garbage.” He knows these people. He loves these people. The title character in Into the Beautiful North, Nayeli, is based on a real girl by the same name who was born into that life, but Urrea has been able to help her family buy a home and Nayeli goes to school and plays soccer like a girl her age deserves, instead of picking through trash like her mother had to. Urrea is infinitely humble about this. I had the immense pleasure of hearing him speak when he came through town last month, and he told us about his family history (and why he looks so Irish) and some of the real-life people who were the inspiration for characters in the novel: Tia Irma, Nayeli, Tacho, and Atomico, to name a few. He is as fantastic a speaker as he is a writer; I could have listened to him for hours. In fact, here’s a little video clip of him that I found of Urrea talking about the novel!

Urrea doesn’t insult his readers. He sprinkles Spanish throughout the text, but even if you don’t speak it, you’re not lost because Urrea has invited you to come alongside and join his characters on a journey. In various reviews I’ve seen the novel compared to O Brother, Where Are Thou and Don Quixote, because, as one blogger put it, “the border’s not just a place that bleeds death and injustice, it also bleeds mythology, cuento, testimonio, and yes, even humor.” Into the Beautiful North is actually funny where it’s inteded to be, and lovely and heart-rending in just the right places.

If I’ve done my duty correctly, you’ll know now to steer clear of Avenue of Mysteries, but you can’t go wrong with Into the Beautiful North or Urrea’s other work, like The Hummingbird’s Daughter or Tijuana Book of the Dead, a collection of poetry. I leave the choice up to you. Choose wisely. Caveat lector.