Today in New York City there will be a memorial service for the novelist Oscar Hijuelos, who died of a heart attack this fall. He was 62. The Times wrote about him the other day, and about his novel Mr. Ives’ Christmas, which is one of the most beautiful things you can ever hope to read. It is a profoundly Catholic, profoundly Christian novel. I had no idea that a mystical experience near the heart of the story is based on something that really happened to Hijuelos. From the Times:
Another essential moment in the novel takes place when Edward Ives, strolling through Midtown Manhattan on an ordinary day, experiences a rapture: “the very sky filled with four rushing, swirling winds, each defined by a different-colored powder like strange Asian spices.”
It is the image that Mr. Ives comes to doubt yet also depend upon in the aftermath of his son’s murder. And it is an image that Mr. Hijuelos himself saw, according to his longtime friend and fellow writer Philip Graham.
“I remember having a number of conversations with him about the vision,” Mr. Graham said last week. “He said this event had happened, it had in his adult life, and he didn’t know what to do with it. And this book is an answer to the question, ‘What do you do when you’ve been given a vision?’”
The story moved me to pick up my paperback copy of Mr. Ives’ Christmas for the first time in maybe 15 years. I read it over the weekend. It was as moving as I’d remembered, and maybe even moreso, because I’m older now, and know what it’s like to be a father, and to have one’s faith tested. The themes in the book resonated more with me, and I was able to appreciate Hijuelos’s artistry at a deeper level. Funny, but I rarely have finished a book, even a book I loved, wishing I knew, or had known, its author. Mr. Ives’ Christmas is an exception. The story is so modest, yet Hijuelos invests his narrative with the beauty and sadness and dignity of life . Yesterday at the liturgy, I lit a candle for Hijuelos, partly in thanksgiving for what he gave me as a reader of Mr. Ives.
You should read this book during the Christmas season. This Christmas season. Twelve years ago, I think it was, I was working at the New York Post, and got into a testy exchange of e-mails with a reader who was also a well-known magazine journalist. The reader and I ended up meeting for coffee. Our politics were very different, but I found that I liked him, and that we had some common ground. When I found out that he had been adopted as a child, and that his status as an adoptee weighed heavily on his mind, I was moved to send him a copy of Mr. Ives’ Christmas; Ives had been a foundling, and this marked him. Don’t you know I received one of the most moving letters (well, e-mails) of my life from this writer. He wrote about how the novel had pierced his heart, how he wept over its beauty, and its quality of mercy. On and on he went, thanking me, a guy he didn’t much like, for the gift of this book. But of course, the gift had first been given to me, in a way, by the man who wrote it.
You need to read this book. Trust me on this.