BOOKS; Poison and snow

MR IVES' CHRISTMAS by Oscar Hijuelos, Bloomsbury pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
THE Devil, famously, has all the best tunes, so it is always an ambitious undertaking to build a novel around the actions of an ordinary, "good" man. The reward for Hijuelos' daring is a painfully affecting novel about the agonies of forgiveness.

Edward Ives' son Robert is 17 and on the brink of a life in the priesthood when he's randomly gunned down, at Christmas, by a Puerto Rican youth. Despite a steady religious faith, success as a commercial artist, a beloved daughter and a marriage "dense with love", this sudden devastating loss becomes "the defining event" of Ives' life.

Though essentially introspective, Ives is liberal through and through. He could long ago have afforded to move his wife and children out to the more affluent Westchester County, but, himself a "foundling" of uncertain parentage, he opted instead for the "vitality" and ethnic mix of his Manhattan neighbourhood.

Despite his neighbours' talk of revenge - "We could even hire another spic to do it" - Ives resolutely turns the other cheek. To the uncomprehending disgust of those who love him, he embarks on the rehabilitation of the young man, Danny Gomez. Though never meeting him, over the years Ives sends letters, a Bible, books - even writes to the parole board on Gomez' behalf.

But, altruistic though his actions may seem, he has merely discovered a means of self-preservation. Concentrating doggedly on the fact of his son's death, he uses Gomez to "get the poison out", because "he had to believe in something, otherwise he would have died, he loved his son so much". He does it because it is all he can do.

And good does actually propagate good. Gomez, a no-hoper from a poverty- stricken background, comes out of prison a genuinely remorseful man. Acknowledging his debt to Ives, he marries, gets a job in a restaurant, has children, and begs to meet his victim's father.

But - and this is the final, crushing irony of the book, its truly testing dilemma - Gomez's future only highlights for Ives his son's true life sentence. In successfully rehabilitating his son's killer, Ives has increased his own darkness and loss.

New York's wintry streets breathe with unpredictable, animal ferocity. Sudden deaths seem almost to be wrought by the city: a young woman putting up Christmas decorations plunges to her death through a 20th floor window and lies in the snow, steam rising out of "the exposed surfaces of her skin"; the secretary at Ives' workplace, killed by a falling shard of glass when a helicopter clips the top of the Pan Am Building. Glass and snow, random violence and pain: freezing New York Christmases, bitter New York deaths.

And over all spreads the "expansiveness" of grief - the way in which sex, hope, family, spontaneity and natural joy are lost forever. Ives continues to love his wife and she him, but it threatens not to be enough. Grief undermines love; yet Gomez now has the comfort of his family.

Hijuelos' triumph is to write so straightforwardly about an uncomplicated, giving soul. Discreetly, Ives suffers the death of love and faith and hope, while continuing to smile at people in the street. This is an impressively anti-sensational novel, devoid of hysteria or obvious tricks as it details the mechanical, grief-pocked years of Ives' middle-age. And although the novel daunts and terrifies, it ultimately consoles with its fierce humanity, mystical faith and determined warmth. "Moving", "tender" and "passionate" all describe it, yet all remain troublingly inadequate.