My oldest grandson, Eli, is a couple months short of his sixth birthday as I write this. He has a phrase that he picked up during a visit to Disney World: “It’s magical.” He uses it now whenever he discovers some new, shiny, wonder-inducing beauty.
I thought of this when I had read the final words of Michael D. O’Brien’s latest novel, The Fool of New York City. I knew going in this was not going to be typical of O’Brien’s work. For one thing, it’s much shorter. For this reason alone I think it will be accessible to a wider audience than his other work.
I am a fan of O’Brien, both of his art and of his writing. I particularly enjoyed Island of the World and Father Elijah. As I read this latest offering I quickly noticed that, freed of the weight of the Apocalyptic vision found in the Children of the Last Days series, an entirely embraceable and affable humor comes into play.
This also is perhaps his most tightly-focused novel. The two main protagonists, a literal giant and an amnesiac artist, are eccentric but believable. O’Brien pulls this off with the sort of skill I associate with Steinbeck in Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, and Tortilla Flat. Or, as a more recent example, Dean Koontz in his Odd Thomas series. You cannot help but be charmed by this peculiar pair as they explore the mystery of Francisco’s memory loss.
As Billy, the giant, and Francisco, the artist, tease apart a knot of vague memories and the clues they reveal, some readers will guess the seminal event that has set the plot of this novel into motion, but O’Brien’s narrative drive will keep you intrigued, looking not just for the what but also the why and the how. The novel unfolds in emotional jolts most of us can relate to for all that the circumstances might be unfamiliar. It would take a jaded individual to not be drawn in.
The Fool of New York City is imbued with a Catholic ethos. It is shot through with what I like to think of as gossamer threads of grace. Those threads we have seen writ large in the works of Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Don Bosco, and Francis of Assisi. We have seen them writ more finely, and with impossible-seeming strength, in the work of millions of saints and would-be saints scattered through the work-a-day history of the Church. It is an aura of quiet, unassuming holiness that is the collective creation of all of us, the imperfect, striving to fulfill the hope our faith offers.
I was enticed into the fascinating paradox of a tale that was both gritty and idyllic. The subtle, organic aura of Catholicism smooths the gritty edges and adds a buoyancy when the spiritual and physical journey of Billy and Francisco approach the dark, haunted places of their past that might otherwise suffocate hope itself and leave them nothing but a desert of despair. I kept turning page after page in anticipation of the graces that would gently lift them while at the same time lead me to yet another pondering pause, while I soaked up the delight of being lifted up along with them.
It is all there in this novel, and yet so subtly woven that I think a nonbeliever could read and enjoy. A Catholic reader who might not know that O’Brien is a Catholic author, or that Ignatius Press is a Catholic endeavor, would most likely feel a familiar resonance, and upon discovering the Catholic identity would probably exclaim, “Of course! Yes, that was it.”
For me this is one of those books. You know the sort. A book that when you pause in your reading, you hold it for a moment at half an arm’s length to gaze upon the cover as you take it all in. The sort of book that causes you to repeatedly pause and ponder along the journey of reading it, just for the sheer delight of doing so. The sort of book you just know you will read again. And yet again, sometime in the future when you can experience the hope and grace of it once more, fresh with the benefit of time.
I believe this is the best of O’Brien’s novels. With exquisite prose and an artist’s eye he weaves a charming narrative cut through with a sorrow that might well leave you gasping for breath. Make no mistake about it, The Fool of New York City might break your heart, and you will be glad of it. It’s magical.
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