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Believing by Rote : Mr. Ives shows us one way to conquer grief : MR. IVES' CHRISTMAS, By Oscar Hijuelos (HarperCollins: $23; 248 pp.)

December 17, 1995|Benjamin Cheever | Benjamin Cheever is working on a book tentatively titled "Investment Tips of the Saints."

Arriving from Alpha Centauri and beginning his study of earthly spirituality at Barnes & Noble, the pilgrim alien would be greatly cheered. The news on planet Earth is good: very, very good. There's plenty of chicken soup for the soul.

In "The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success," Deepak Chopra has finally severed the troubling link between poverty and piety. Judgment, in any case, will be delayed if only we avail ourselves of "The Miracle of Melatonin." The reason humans get old and die, apparently, is because the pineal, a small, cone-shaped endocrine organ in the posterior forebrain, gets tired and stops producing melatonin. Fear not, the stuff can be purchased at most any health food store. I paid $5.56 for 60 tabs, highest quality, quick-acting. Take one at bedtime and you'll awake refreshed. And younger.

Plus Christmas is around the corner. 'Tis the season to be jolly. God bless us every one. And yet Oscar Hijuelos has chosen to build his fourth novel around a Christian who plays by all the old rules and suffers anyway.

He tells a story that is nearly 2,000 years old and yet in so doing presents us with a book that is truly startling in its novelty. He makes all those popular optimists look like tinsel on a soiled and plastic tree. This is the best book Hijuelos has written. Which is saying something. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1989 novel, "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love." Later made into a movie, this told the exuberant story of a couple of Cuban musicians who hit New York hard during the 1950s.

The new book is as quiet as the other was loud. Abandoned without so much as a hastily scribbled note, the child hero of "Mr. Ives' Christmas," is adopted seven years later by a man who "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.' "

And there's plenty of enormity in this book. We learn almost immediately that Edward will lose his own beloved 17-year-old son to a freak killing. "The sad event took place one evening, a few days before Christmas 1967, some six months before Robert was to enter the Franciscan order." The father around which this story is built is crushed by the sacrifice of his boy. "In his retirement and much slowed down, Ives still had days when he blamed his son's death on God's 'will.' 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."

The story then spins backward to less sorrowful times. We find ourselves entranced, even as we examine the background of this passenger on the Titanic.

The foundling hero of our book had met Freud's two precepts for success: work and love. The work came first, out of an early interest in drawing and a talent for the same. The boy was awkward and withdrawn, seemed doomed to solitude, but then, taking a drawing class at the Art Students League on West 57th Street, the young Edward had been impressed with the intensity of the student Annie MacGuire. One day the model failed to show up. The teacher was preparing to cancel the session, when Annie stepped forward and spoke with him.

"And then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, she went behind a Chinese screen, which was off to the side of the models' platform, pinned back her thick brunet hair, slipped off her low-heeled shoes and nylons, removed her dress--blue with a skirt to the ankles, white mother-of-pearl buttons, a black cloth belt--and her undergarments. . . . Her breasts were fuller and more firmly shaped than Ives could have envisioned."

They marry and have children. Ives, spurred by ambition for his family, moves up at the advertising agency where he had started as an illustrator. Drawing the fetching woman who becomes the Imperial Floor Polish housewife, he shows in her the smoldering carnality of his own beloved wife. The campaign is a success.

It's not a bad life, actually, except that it is all seen through the curtain of later sorrows. We know Robert is going to die.

In a section titled "On Madison and Forty First Street," Ives has a vision. Having just survived an elevator crash, he walked out on the street and "saw the sun, glowing red and many times its normal size, looming over the avenue, a pink, then flaring yellow corona bursting from it. And then in all directions the very sky filled with four rushing, swirling winds, each defined by a different colored powder like strange Asian spices: One was cardinal red, one the color of saffron, another gray like moth wing, the last a brilliant violet."

Excited by the spectacle, Ives is also troubled by its unconventionality. "If I had a vision, then why did it not seem Christian?"

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