Murderer. Thief. Deserter. Polygamist. Innocent?
Manalive begins in a way similar to Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, only the tenants of Mrs. Duke’s boarding house have no rainy-day excuse for their inactivity. The day is nearing its completion, and the boarders are divided into male and female, the females languishing inside, the males in the garden, neither group saying or doing much of anything. Into this "dead" setting blows (literally) Innocent Smith, a man so fully alive that those he comes in contact with seem like statues by comparison. (On his arrival at the boarding house, he climbs a tree in pursuit of a hat, and one of the boarders says, "I never even noticed that tree before." This is typical of the experiences to follow.)
After Innocent’s arrival, "there was a crazy sense that it was everybody's birthday." One by one, Innocent’s contagious life revives most of the boarding house’s tenants. He has a picnic on the roof, begins a boarding-house habadashery, and encourages those with musical talent in their concerts. Every latent talent, desire, or interest comes alive in the presence of Innocent Smith, which explains the romantic pairings that soon result. Innocent himself proposes to Mary Grey, one of the boarders.
Innocent’s proposal prompts one of the tenants to suspect that Innocent is insane. She calls Drs. Warner and Pym to investigate. They arrive, notifying the boarders that Innocent Smith is not who he seems to be. They claim to have evidence that Innocent is one of the most dangerous, bloodthirsty criminals in all of England and deserves nothing short of being locked away for life. They charge him with murder, theft, abandonment, and polygamy. The boarders must decide whom to believe: the new arrivals with their evidence or themselves and their own experience. What results is Mrs. Duke’s boarding house’s first court case, with reason mitigating the claims of science and faith.
Manalive is a story of a holy fool, one who seems upside-down, but is really the only one right-side-up. Innocent Smith “breaks the conventions but keeps the commandments,” and for this reason it is easy for those around him to speculate that he is insane (especially those who like their topsy-turvydom). Instead of being insane, Innocent is, well, what his name suggests, and his very exuberance calls into question the deadness around him (much like other characters in his tradition, perhaps most notably the great Man of La Mancha himself).
Chesterton does an excellent job, particularly in part one, of creating a character who is fully alive. One of my college professors said it’s very easy to create a villain who steals the show; it is much harder to create a good character with equal force and gravity. Chesterton, I believe, succeeds in this regard in his portrayal of Innocent Smith. Smith not only draws the characters in the book to him, but the reader as well. Perhaps the reason for this is Smith’s root in Chestertonian philosophy, principles, and paradox. Innocent Smith seems an aggregate of Chesterton’s most famous paradoxes, even embodying the novel that Chesterton said in Orthodoxy he should like to write. Thus, Smith exudes the joy and dizzying logic that one comes to expect from Chesterton (more famously displayed in his characters Father Brown and Sunday).
Manalive is at times slow (some scenes in part two dragged on a bit longer than I would have preferred) and at times predictable, but its originality in spite of these criticisms is enough to recommend it. Chesterton has written a truth-telling story that is a joy to read. It provides a reminder of something Chesterton once said: “A dead thing can go with the stream…but only a living thing can go against it.”