By Louis Hemmings
Today I want to share with readers my thoughts on one of the most remarkable books I have ever read. Looking back, it was in 1982 on my last day at a summer writing school at Wheaton College, Illinois, that I was handed a brief novella by a fellow student. That small book was Mr Blue by Myles Connolly (pictured), a writer I had never heard of. When I finally got to read it, back in Dublin, it detonated many creative developments in my own life.
Mr Blue was first published in 1928 and by 1990 had sold over 500,000 copies – quite an achievement for a book that once was going to be pulped, due to lack of sales.
Blue was a mystic, a visionary squandering a fortune buying houses not needed, building factories to manufacture toy balloons, then releasing them, in their hundreds up in the hills, singing little ditties as they went on their way.
When all his money was gone, he took to living in a wooden packing case on top of an office block, where he could shout and pray to his heart’s content. He flew kites from the ramparts and paid brass bands to serenade his friends on their birthdays. In his rooftop quarters he held curious conversations with his friends.
This creative madness cannot last for long, and it doesn’t. A new owner of the office block banishes him out of his enviable eyrie. He wishes to create a street apostolate to the regular people, with the appellation the “Spies of God”. His means of living are unknown to the narrator. He ends up weak and in hospital.
The narrator visits him a few times, telling us that he wanted to say to Blue: “….that the sight of him was an inspiration to me. I wanted to tell him that the spectacle of him alive and smiling cleansed me – as it always did – of the cynicism and scepticism that settled like dirt on my mind. Here he was, on his back, worn, thin, brave, smiling, the dream still dominant in his eyes.”
Later in Blue’s life, while accompanying a drunken docker back to their house, he tries to rescue the now-fallen drunk, from a busy road. While doing so he takes a hit from a limo for him, recalling “what Christ did for us all…”
Blue ends up in hospital again, for a stay shortened by death: “He can’t have gone – Blue and his Spies of God. No. Say what you will. Do what you will. You can’t make me believe that Blue is dead.”
From a visit to the Catholic Central Library, I discovered the author had been dead for many decades. What a disappointment. I learned that he had been a successful writer and producer in Hollywood, having been drafted in from Boston by Joe Kennedy, patriarch of the Kennedy clan. Yet none of Connolly’s famous films quite matched for me the singular triumph of Mr Blue.
I wanted to thank the man for his book. How could I do that? What could I do for Mr Blue in Ireland?
I proposed the idea of broadcasting an abridged version to a local radio station. The station’s producers liked my idea, even if it contradicted media expectations of genuine faith.
I gained the permission of the author’s still mourning widow, who wrote back to me: “Myles died in 1964 during open heart surgery and for me Mr Blue died that day. He was all the things that he wrote about the character – giving away his money was the heart of it. His concern and interest for and in people was boundless.”
I don’t know what listeners to Bray local radio thought of my week-long reading of this wonderful novella. I hope that it kick-started something in them.
We all need to be infected with Blue’s hopeful virus. His gospel-naivety and his absolute trust in the God, who just will not be put in a box, could refresh and renew of our faith a lot. Perhaps the Spies of God still have a chance.
Mr Blue, with an introduction by John Breslin SJ (Loyola Classics, $11.95); Loyola Press, Chicago, Illinois; www. loyolapress.com