Saturday, April 12, 2008

Book Review: Mr. Blue

I read Mr. Blue way back in high school at the recommendation of my freshman religion teacher. (My copy cost 65 cents and still bears the return address stickers I used back then.) Some months ago there was a discussion floating around some of the Catholic blogs about Mr. Blue, so I retrieved my copy and re-read it.

Much of what I remember about Mr. Blue remained true. Some of it I rediscovered. And some of it I now read with the eyes of a 50-something adult, who bears responsibilities for a husband, children, mortgage, and job.

This made for some very slow reading, even though the book itself is rather short.

The author, Myles Connolly, was a Catholic who lived in Boston. He attended Boston College, was a reporter, and eventually went to work in the movies as a story writer/editor. Mr. Blue was written in 1928 and I doubt very much that such a character could exist in modern times.

The narrator, who remains unnamed, first hears of Mr. Blue in a bar in New York. The superintendent of a high-rise office building tells of a man who lives on the roof, a man "who's so happy he's almost crazy." The superintendent takes the narrator to meet this young man, who has only a gaily painted packing crate for shelter. The narrator listens while Blue expounds on his philosophy: how if the poor lived on the roofs of the buildings, lifted from their squalor, how their souls would be uplifted as well. How you could see the world from the tops of the buildings. How they were both lucky to be Christians.

"I think," he whispered half to himself, "my heart would break with all this immensity if I did not know that God Himself once stood beneath it, a young man, as small as I."

In high school, we went up to the fourth floor and released balloons in honor of Mr. Blue. (That was back in the day before we understood the ecological damage we were doing. We had the rather romantic idea that someone would find the messages we had tied to the strings, kind of like messages in a bottle, and be uplifted or inspired by them.) Reading the passage about Mr. Blue flying his kite or releasing his balloons brings back some of the innocence and excitement I felt 40 years ago. Because I was excited about my faith, my relationship with God. Despite Vietnam, despite the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, despite the Civil Rights riots in the South, it was an optimistic time. Vatican II was encouraging the laity to become involved in the Church. The Mass was in English and we were trying to find new ways to make the Church a real community. Rev. King was giving stirring speeches; Bobby Kennedy was the Senator from New York.

By the following fall, the national mood went from optimistic to cynical. The Summer of Love degenerated into merely sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.

Until I read the review of Mr. Blue by Fr. John Breslin, S.J., I didn't think of the contrasts between J. Blue and Jay Gatsby. Both are young men. Both have a dream. Both ultimately die because of it. But one believes in God; one believes in nothing except his "ideal woman," who is all too human and shallow.

When I was 14, I wanted to be Mr. Blue. 40 years later, I find I'm the Narrator. I'm much more practical, even about my faith. I tend to take sunsets and stars for granted. My scope of thought has narrowed from infinity to the next 24 hours. That Myles Connolly was able, as a middle-aged man, to find that part of his soul and create Mr. Blue so I can rediscover it, is something of a miracle. Thank you, Mr. Connolly. Thank you, Mr. Blue

On the March Hare scale: 5 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks

cross-posted on The Mad Tea Party

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