By Larry Woiwode
When Christmas Dies
Ives thinks, a common man courting poetry and cliches; we follow his thoughts. Hijuelos's goal is to represent Ives as no more and no less than he is, rather than reverting to additives or "action" scenes to make him interesting. This rigor of focus is Hijuelos's strength, and he has been wise, in the best artistic sense, never to waver from his first conception. It is a modest conception, perhaps, but so refreshing—modesty in contemporary fiction! And it is a pleasure of the highest aesthetic level to discover that conception fulfilled nearly perfectly.
A writer's use of language generally follows one of two schools. The first tries to keep it as simple as possible, so it doesn't obtrude into the story and its action. The second attempts to manufacture striking language at every turn, in a desire to represent an original "voice." The problem with the first school is its tendency to forget that language forms the story, in all its obtrusive and quixotic and multitudinous forms. Its presence is, in an unexplored sense, otherworldly, because it is neither the story nor its characters but their medium. A chiseled precision, with turns of eloquence or shifts in speed to suit the word to the action, seems to be the goal of writers in this tradition, from Tolstoy and Maupassant to Hemingway and Carver.
(This school should be further distinguished from those who write the plain flat prose that seems to emulate the one-dimensional images of TV, a style first perfected perhaps by Harold Robbins and often preferred by those who presently write "Christian" novels.)
The problem with the school of dazzle is the pounce or prance of personality in every sentence, as if each phrase could somehow be unforgettably vivid because of the sheer originality of the practitioner. Here language becomes the medium of personality, the author's, and at its lowest ebb this school functions like those booths that turn out strips of photos of the paying subject. Mannerism that dates in a decade is the school's scourge. Few in its fold overcome the temptations of self-regard. But when they are avoided and the cadences of the storyteller take over, such writing not only justifies its experimentation but extends the dimensions of language, as in Twain, say, or Eudora Welty or Harper Lee or perhaps more aptly—anyway in the best of his work—Faulkner.
Over and above all this, few readers realize that no writer chooses a school, but helplessly does the best he or she is able to do with whatever gifts are given, within the demands each story or book dictates.
Which is a way of attempting to define what Hijuelos has achieved. Mr. Ives' Christmas travels mostly at the edges of these schools, attempting a poetic reproduction of the movement of Ives's thought—utterly undramatic, you think for the first few pages, and impossible to pull off. But by the time you make that assessment, you have already entered Ives's world.
Hijuelos's brushing against cliche and his archaic turns of phrase and diction—"Even in his youth, he had a pensive nature"—are, I believe, purposeful. He hopes by this to pinpoint Ives's era (he was born in 1924), his more sedate and formal, gentler generation. Hijuelos also intends to convey something of the Spanish identity Ives takes on. Not knowing any of the details of his birth, Ives has come to believe one of his birth parents was Hispanic. He forms friendships, first with the Cubans and Puerto Ricans who work in his adoptive father's printing plant, and then with the Hispanics on Claremont Avenue, near Columbia University, where Ives and his wife move after their second child, a daughter, is born. It galls him all the more, then, that his son's murderer was a Puerto Rican.
When Ives first encounters his eventual wife, Annie, an Irish Catholic from Long Island, she is turning into an avant-garde bohemian, in the idiom of the day. They meet at the Art Students League; Ives, in his introspective shyness, is attracted to her—a nonspinsterish schoolteacher with a streak of sexual adventurism. When a model fails to show up for a drawing class that Annie and Ives and a priest from Fordham and several others are taking at the League (the priest disguised in street clothes), Annie undresses and mounts the pedestal.