Manalive, is his tongue-in-cheek laugh at himself. The novel revels in the profoundly ridiculous and I could just see its hero, like the Pied Piper, attracting a crowd of little children dancing in his wake.
The protagonist, Innocent Smith, is a large man with a small head. And that, it seems to me, is the essence of Chesterton. He had a heart that required a large body to contain it, and a wise head that was not puffed up with its own brilliance. We meet Smith in a windstorm, leaping over the garden wall at Beacon House, a boarding house filled with solemn, cynical, and somewhat self-absorbed people. And like the wind that blew him into their lives, he blows them away creating a "crazy sense that it was everybody's birthday."
With all the "crazy" antics that follow, Smith is accused of being a dangerous lunatic and the members of the household, along with an English doctor and an American criminologist, become the prosecution, defense, judge, and jury of Innocent Smith's sanity. Will he be found guilty as a dangerous madman who first woos and then murders women? Was he really trying to kill the doctor whose top hat he riddled with bullets? Is he a burglar preying on the neighborhood? You'll have to read the story to find out.
Innocent Smith reminded of one of my favorite characters in fiction, Mr. Blue, who loved to fly kites from the tops of skyscrapers where he lived for a time in a makeshift shack. I suspect Mr. Blue's author, Myles Connolly, was familiar with Smith, and perhaps Blue's name was a hat tip to Chesterton since one of Smith's eccentricities was to make off with a series of damsels (no spoiler here) named after colors.
I'm off today to the Northern Virginia Chesterton Society's monthly meeting which is always a joyful romp sharing our love of the Apostle of Common Sense. We are discussing Manalive and I expect it to be a lively and fun-filled afternoon. Like Innocent Smith, I suspect most of us keep the commandments but not the conventions. That is one of the subjects Chesterton frequently riddled with holes like Innocent Smith firing his pistol. And it is no less true today that people are more concerned with empty conventions (that have become increasingly depraved) than with the truth of creed and commandments.
If you want to do yourself a favor in 2013, read Manalive. Beneath all the nonsense are profound truths about the meaning of life. And you won't even need to buy the book. It's on-line for free.