'Mr. Ives' Christmas' a Holiday Hymn to New York

Ray Suarez

Ray Suarez is a senior correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS and author of The Holy Vote: The Politics of Faith in America. He is enough of a grump to insist the house is not decorated for Christmas until December 20. And every Christmas, he makes his pilgrimage to the Holy City of Brooklyn, where he sings carols as loudly as the choir. hide caption

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Read This for the Holidays

Get in a holiday mood with a Web-only You Must Read This:

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.

Excerpt: 'Mr. Ives' Christmas'

Mr. Ives' Christmas Cover

Long Ago at Christmas

Years ago, in the 1950s, as a young man working for a Madison Avenue advertising agency, Ives always looked forward to the holiday season and would head out during his lunch hours, visiting churches, to think and meditate, and, if he was lucky, to hear the choirs as they practiced their hymns and sacred songs. Often enough, he walked along the burgeoning sidewalks, crowded with shoppers and tourists, and made his way to Saint Patrick's Cathedral, where he'd become lost in a kind of euphoric longing-why he did not know. And in a moment, he would find himself, as a child, attending Mass with his adoptive family again, so many memories coming back to him: of standing beside his father during the services and noticing, as he looked up at his father's kindly face, just how moved he seemed to be by the prayers, and the Latin incantations, and the reverential chants; so moved, especially during the raising of the host, that he almost seemed on the verge of tears.

Each time he entered a sanctuary, Ives himself nearly wept, especially at Christmas, when the image of one particular church on Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn, whose choir was very good and the worshipers devout, came back to him, its interior smelling mightily of evergreen boughs, candle wax, and pots of red and white blossoms set against the columns. Dignified Irishmen, with greatly slicked heads of hair, dockworkers for the most part, turned up in ties and jackets, their wives and children by their sides. And there were bootleggers and policemen and carpenters and street sweepers in attendance as well. And a blind man whom Ives sometimes helped down the marble stairs; a few Negroes, as they were called in those days, all, Ives was convinced, believing in the majesty of the child. The old Italian ladies, their heads wrapped in black scarves and their violet lips kissing their scapular medals, and crucifixes and rosaries, kneeling, nearly weeping before the altar and the statues of Christ and His mother; and at Christmas, the beginning of His story, sweetly invoked by the rustic and somehow ancient looking creche.

The fact was that Ives, uncertain of many things, could at that time of year sit rather effortlessly within the incense- and candle-wax-scented confines of a church, like Saint Patrick's, thinking about the images, ever present and timeless, that seemed to speak especially to him. Not about the cheery wreaths, the boughs of pine branches, the decorative ivy and flowers set out here and there, but rather about the Christ child, whose meaning evoked for him a feeling for "the beginning of things," a feeling that time and all its sufferings had fallen away.

Of course, while contemplating the idea of the baby Jesus, perhaps the most wanted child in the history of the world, Ives would feel a little sad, remembering that years ago someone had left him, an unwanted child, in a founding home. (To that day, to all the days into the future, there remained within him the shadowy memory of the dark-halled building in which he lived for nearly two years, a place as cavernous and haunted as a cathedral.) A kind of fantasy would overtake him, a glorious vision of angels and kings and shepherds worshiping a baby: nothing could please him more, nothing could leave him feeling a deeper despair.

Enflamed by the sacred music and soft chanting, his heart lifted out of his body and winged its way through the heavens of the church. Supernatural presences, invisible to the world, seemed thick in that place, as if between the image of Christ who is newly born and the image of the Christ who would die on the cross and, resurrected, return as the light of this world, there flowed a powerful, mystical energy. And his sense of that energy would leave Ives, his head momentarily empty of washing machine and automobile advertisements, convinced that, for all his shortcomings as a man, he once had a small, if imperfect, spiritual gift.

That, long ago, at Christmas.

A Sentimental Man

More sentimental than he would let on to others, Ives, in his later years, was the kind of fellow who saved just about everything, a practice that had something to do with his foundling beginning. In his study, he had file cabinets filled with letters, postcards, and Christmas greetings. He kept funeral cards, Jesus Christ with His burning heart welcoming the sanctified into heaven, the glorious place. He had autographed drawings from Winsor McKay, Walter Lantz, Otto Messmer, Lee Falk, Dick Caulkins, and dozens of other cartoon artists. And piles of cards and correspondence from commercial artists like himself, many of them friends with whom he had collaborated over the years. A curiosity: somehow and somewhere, he had acquired an autographed publicity shot of the actor Ray Milland. And there was also his collection of, affectionately kept, handwritten notes from fellow artists much more famous than himself. His favorite, because it took him back to a happier time during his childhood, was the note Wait Disney had sent him back in 1935, when, at the age of thirteen, he submitted some funny-animal drawings and gag ideas on the chance that he could go to work for the Disney studio, then making a new kind of animated, feature-length film called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. A form letter turned him down, but a few lines had been added, which said, "Keep in touch and keep it up, your work is swell! Walt Disney." Ives showed the note to all his friends and passersby, as they walked by his stoop, the mild praise had him floating for weeks.

He even had a crinkly-edged black-and-white photograph taken of him back then—Ives in a tie and jacket posed on the steps of his building in Brooklyn, just after he'd come back from Mass, with the letter held up before him, for all to see. His expression was happy.

The foregoing is excerpted from Mr. Ives' Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers.

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