'Mr. Ives' Christmas' a Holiday Hymn to New York
Here comes Christmas. It's not about the gifts. It is a gift, given again and again, an endlessly renewing feast.
Christmas-themed literature usually falls short for me. I don't read much fiction. But what fiction I do read sticks with me for a long, long time. The sadder the better. The more grueling, the more rewarding. I know I'm alive when made to feel pain by a terrific piece of writing.
My wife and I have traded shots over this for years, in arguments that end with me saying something like, "Well, if that wasn't done so beautifully, it wouldn't have made you feel so bad." So let me recommend something for your holiday nightstand: Mr. Ives' Christmas, by Oscar Hijuelos. It is the story of Edward Ives, an adopted boy of uncertain ancestry raised by a loving father in Brooklyn, who grows to middle age in mid-century New York.
Talented and sensitive, Ives meets the great love of his life in art school; they marry and raise children in upper Manhattan. While Ives quietly rises in his career as a commercial illustrator — madly in love with his wife, his kids, his friends and God — New York sinks, becoming a dirtier, more dangerous place.
Those were my years growing up there, as Ives did, in Brooklyn. Hijuelos gets so many things right that so many writers get wrong about New York — the huddle of apartment life: the steam heat and cooking smells, the noise not only of crying babies, bickering couples and barking dogs, but of victrolas, a nice dance number sneaking out an apartment door open a crack — of the New York where people made room for each other, a peaceable kingdom floating above the cruelty and squalor that sometimes broke through in a sudden spasm.
One such moment in the book robs Ives' of his son, the aspiring seminarian, killed by a Puerto Rican hood on his way home from church. Hijuelos doesn't give us cheap joy in the first half of the book, so he won't give us cheap grace for the second half. Calm, loving, faithful Edward Ives soldiers on, but something inside him turns to stone. He puts one foot in front of the other and gets through his 40s, 50s, 60s and into his 70s.
Hijuelos pulls us into Ives' suffering, compels the reader to share it, while Ives is unwilling to ask his wife, his friends and his co-workers to help him bear his grief. To the amazement and uncomprehending anger of those who love him most, Ives helps, meets and forgives his son's killer. This hymn to a beautiful and lost New York, to Christmas, to the challenge of a living faith and the redeeming power of love, means more to me now as a middle-aged father and longtime husband than it did when the book was first written in 1995.
It is a new classic for a new age, a bracing reminder of the difference between love and romance, from a writer whose gifts I admire and, maybe, envy.
You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.
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