G. K. Chesterton was a man who discovered the secret to a happy life—I doubt one can read much of his work without coming to that conclusion. The most natural reaction to his body of work, I think, is amazement: to wonder what secret this man discovered that allowed him to take so much delight in a sheet of brown paper, for example, or where he found the energy to defend his faith in a land growing faithless with so much gusto and wit.
In Manalive, a short novel full of events as improbable as the name of the story’s protagonist, Chesterton shares his happy secret with the rest of the world—a world that has grown old and weary because it has grown melancholy.
The novel starts with a gust of strong wind blowing across England, a wind that extinguishes candlelight and plunges a young boy in darkness, and startles a young mother as the clothes she set out to dry dance on the clothesline. But though it shocks everyone it touches, Chesterton tells us not to fear: this is a “good wind that blows nobody harm.”
The good wind blows into Beacon House, a boarding house where five people live (inmates, Chesterton calls them, and tells us that although they are young inmates, they are also listless). The wind startles the inmates of Beacon House as it has startled the inhabitants of England; it blows a hat over the fence and into their garden, followed by an umbrella and then a bag, and finally by the owner of these wind-strewn possessions, a man whose name is probably Innocent Smith.
Smith moves into the boarding house and his presence there is like a bolt of energy that revitalizes the inmates (the day after he moves in, we’re told, “there was a crazy sense that it was everybody’s birthday.”) This happy feeling doesn’t last long, though. In a wild and crazy act, Smith asks one of the visitors to Beacon House to marry him; and in another, roaring with laughter, he fires his gun at the doctor called to investigate the mental health of a man who proposes to a woman he met only a few hours before. During the investigation of Smith, it turns out he might not be so innocent after all—criminal at best, in fact, and more than likely a maniac and a monster who has left “a track of blood and tears across the world.” As usual with Chesterton, though, things are almost never what they seem at first (or second, or third) glance.
Chesterton isn’t always an easy read, especially in his fiction. He’s so playful with his language, so light-hearted with his characters and their conversations (and sometimes with plot itself), that an impatient reader might feel compelled to yell, “Get to the point!” But the playfulness is the point. Why do men marry their wives only once? Why do criminals break into other people’s homes but no one thinks to break into his or her own house? Why covet your neighbour’s possessions, when it’s better in every way to covet your own?