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Oscar Hijuelos & Mr. Ives

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 [1], 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 [2] 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.

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6 Comments To "Oscar Hijuelos & Mr. Ives"

#1 Comment By Michael Peppard On December 2, 2013 @ 9:55 am

In my first teaching job (at a Jesuit HS), I took over the previous teacher’s syllabus for sacramental theology. Alongside expected readings and assignments, it included Mr. Ives’ Christmas, which I had never read. Like the teacher before me, we used the book to explore sin, repentance, contrition, penance, the sacrality of all creation, the cyclical rhythms of the year and of life, etc. The novel was an unorthodox but inspired choice for the class.

The sad part is that some parents did not allow their high school boys to read the book because of the one or two sex scenes.

It was my first lesson in negotiating parents who want to control all the input for their almost-grown children. What a shame — as if we weren’t going to talk about the book in class! There’s much worse sex in the Bible, as we all know. And the rest of the book’s beauty far outweighed any dangers of a few sentences of eroticism.

Anyway, thanks for reminding me of this book, which is an ethical and spiritual challenge for any reader.

#2 Comment By Sam M On December 2, 2013 @ 10:21 am

I do trust you. It’s on my list!

Interesting that it got such a negative review from Publisher’s Weekly. Check it out on Amazon.

[NFR: If you read the Times story, it talks about how Hijuelos’s publisher did not like the book at all. It takes God and Catholicism seriously, and not in a sentimental, pious way (there’s sex in the book, for example). I think it’s impossible to overstate how much the atheism of the New York publishing and media world distorts their collective imagination. — RD]

#3 Comment By Sam M On December 2, 2013 @ 4:35 pm

I buy that. It’s just that Library Journal’s review was pretty positive. Someone had an ax to grind or something.

PW mentions that it was a Book of the Month Club selection. Probably because Mambo Kings came first and he was famous.

I shake my fist in the general direction of the publishing industry.

#4 Comment By Caroline Nina in DC On December 2, 2013 @ 7:38 pm

It is one of the best contemporary novels I have ever read.

May his memory be eternal.

#5 Comment By Jason On December 2, 2013 @ 7:44 pm

What I think is good about the novel is the earthiness of it, how Hijeulos portrays Ives and other characters in the nitty-gritty world of post-WWII New York (Brookyln or Queens, I can’t remember). The characters are not saints but human; Ives is a devout and very good Catholic, but he still has his own temptations. Like many shy and religious men, for instance, Ives is overwhelmed by sexual desire at the beginning of the book and is deeply affected by his attraction for his future-wife (who he meets in his figure-drawing class and who although an artist also poses nude herself). They go out and she eventually gets knocked up; relunctant to not give up the baby to adoption, she keeps the baby within the family because she knows that not to do so would be devestating to Ives who grew up as an orphan. The murderer of Ives’ boy is yet another low-intelligence teen whose Puerto-Rican mother had the boy out-of-wedlock at a young age, and the later – dysfunctional as she is – shows no remorse for her son’s crime in a very painful scene in the book. Anyway, as Mr. Dreher suggests, it’s really a brilliant work: buy it.

[NFR: It was Manhattan — Hell’s Kitchen and Midtown, but mostly up by Columbia. — RD]

#6 Comment By cecelia On December 2, 2013 @ 8:13 pm

thank you for the recommendation – this book just got added to my Christmas present shopping list – because I always include some presents for myself!