By Larry Woiwode
When Christmas Dies
"Mr. Ives' Christmas"
By Oscar Hijuelos
248 pp.; $23
How does a parent endure the senseless slaying of an only son by a street thug? One with faith in a transcendent God could endure it, you might surmise, and especially a Christian who professes to bow to the eternal purposes of that God. But the brute truth is this: the death of a child, and especially the sudden, violent death of one's own child, can cause faith to crumple.
A parent is hardly able to view such a death as the child's early entry into heaven—indeed, those who do this too easily lead others to suspect the ladder in their heads doesn't quite reach upstairs. The parent might try, by some prestidigitation of transfer, to translate the death into the symbology of Christ, whose supreme sacrifice is the basis of Christianity, and end up appalled. Only the senselessness of the act remains, and God, the former focus of faith, is now the recipient of an all-encompassing anger, worse than any directed at the person who pulled the trigger.
How could God permit this to happen, the believer thinks, and falls into a bitterness more profound than the atheist's resigned despair at mere senselessness. The outworking of the dimensions of such a death, in its effect on believers and unbelievers alike, is the central business of Oscar Hijuelos's new novel, "Mr. Ives' Christmas."
Ives, who has worked most of his life in the art department of a Manhattan advertising agency, is growing elderly when we meet him, but he still ruminates on the death of his son, Robert, who was killed in 1967, near Christmas —shot outside a neighborhood church after choir practice. Ives's anger is apparent as he recalls yet again the circumstances of his son's death: "God had timed things so that his murderer, his face scowling, came walking down the street just as his son and a friend were standing around talking. Pop, pop, pop, three shots in the belly because his son had simply turned his head to watch his murderer's exaggerated and comic gait as he went by. A fourteen-year-old kid, who'd reeled around asking, 'What chew looking at?,' his pistol popping before Robert could reply."
Ives's "stubborn inability to stop mourning," even decades later, tempts his wife to leave him. "Again and again she told him, 'You have to put it behind you, my love,' but as the years passed, nearly thirty of them, with their thousands of days and hundreds of thousands of hours, he still could not get a certain image out of his head: his righteous and good son, stretched out on the sidewalk, eyes glazed and looking upward, suddenly aware and saddened that his physical life was ending, that image coming to Ives again and again."
Ives is the true center of this novel, as few central characters are; every word of it is filtered through him. He was deposited outside a foundling home, an orphan, and later adopted by a gentle Catholic widower from Brooklyn (adoption rules were different then) who ran a printing firm located on Chambers Street—a mellow man emotionally and financially sound enough to adopt several children:
Mr. Ives Senior was able to give his third son clothes and books, two brothers and a sister, a little money, and a room in his large, somewhat rundown brownstone, three stories high, on Carroll Street. And a name: Edward. And encouragement when, in one of the miracles of life, young Ives, at the age of seven or so, had started to draw, spending his leisure hours not out on the street playing with the local ruffians, who'd slide down coal chutes and throw bottles off rooftops at passing trucks, but resting on his belly in their front parlor floor, copying out drawings from newspapers and the illustrated books that found their way into the house. His father had liked such books very much, notably those from England with engravings by the likes of John Tenniel or those artists who illustrated the works of Charles Dickens, whose line drawings enchanted the young Ives. . . . He also taught his son how to pray, when to kneel and stand and bow his head and close his eyes during the consecration of the Host; taught him to take in the beautiful goodness that he was desperate to believe existed; to tremble before the "enormity of it all."
Something of the center of the novel is present in this passage, especially in its tone of simplicity and wonder—a wonder that travels, at times, into the precincts of the fabulistic. The prose pours on at this stately pace, too dreamy and measured for a novel, you might think at first. Then you begin to understand you are living at Ives's pace, and the novel's structure of chapterettes—many only a page or two long—begins to make sense. Each tiny chapter is given a title in full caps, and deserves one, you come to feel, when you understand that these are the cardinal thoughts Ives has mulled over for 30 years. Each section then begins to accumulate increasing emotional weight.