If you haven’t heard of Dutch novelist Peter Buwalda’s debut novel, Bonita Avenue, don’t feel bad — but you’re going to want to take note. The novel was published in the Netherlands in 2010, and after a successful run in Europe, including several awards, it’s only just made it into translated publication here in the US this January.
Thank goodness it did — what a crazy, massively entertaining novel! It’s part Franzen in that it includes a deeply dysfunctional family that prides itself in keeping secrets from each other. It’s part Philip Roth in that the protagonist is a crusty old dude with some, er, sexual quirks. And it’s part Coen brothers (especially Fargo) in that it’s about everyday people that seem to go off the rails due to bad decision, which in turn cause them to do really bad, sometimes violent, things.
The story is about a family and its patriarch, Siem Sigerius, a world famous mathematician (not an oxymoron), former world-class judoku (a person who does judo), and head of prestigious Dutch university (self explanatory). His mid-20s daughter (though she’s actually a step-daughter) Joni is dating a guy named Aaron — these two get up to some schemes, to say the least. And finally, it’s about Siem’s estranged son Wilbert, an ex-con pervert who has just gotten out of jail after serving ten years for killing a guy with a sledgehammer. (Evidently the Dutch legal system is a tad more forgiving than ours.)
The plot of the novel is centered around a real event — on May 13, 2000, a fireworks factory exploded in the Dutch city of Enschede, taking out an entire neighborhood. This event has a ripple effect for all these characters, setting forth a series events that ensures things won’t end well for many for them. (That’s not a spoiler – you have that sense from the opening pages.)
One of the themes of the novel is how fate or coincidence or pure randomness (Siem had taught the math of coincidence and chance theory when he was a professor at MIT and then at Berkeley before returning to Holland) can have just as a big an influence on our lives as our choices (of course). But coincidence can compound already bad decisions. Indeed, when we make bad choices, and then lie, and then make more bad choices, and then a dash of fate is thrown in, the consequences are multiplied exponentially — like, say, an explosion, like say, at a fireworks factory.
By the way, if you’re wondering, Bonita Avenue is a street in Berkeley — it’s where the family lived when Siem taught there. For Joni, it’s a symbol of her happy childhood, before the world and all its destructive powers, both self-inflicted and random, intervened.
This is a brick of a novel — more than 530 pages. At some points, it does feel a bit over-written, but at other times some weird stuff happens that isn’t full explained, so overall, I had no quarrels with the length. The only caveat is that if you need likeable characters to like a book, this isn’t a novel for you. Personally, I would’ve been willing to spend several hundred more pages with these delightfully despicable characters. Though definitely not perfect (what novel is?), this is a highly entertaining family saga, and highly recommended.