Mitzvah Man 521.
(photo credit: Texas Tech University Press)
Had the title of this book been “The Mitzva Man,” one might mistake John
Clayton’s new novel for a children’s book about doing mitzvot. That an author
would dare risk being dismissed as “light” and “Jewish” is
Readers of Clayton’s short stories know that he is not only a
master craftsman, but rare in that his stories are inquiries into the purpose of
life; he is a moral philosopher. Like a composer who takes a simple theme and
creates complicated fugues and nuances, Clayton delicately weaves Jewish themes
and ideas into a story that is captivating and enticing.
It is precisely
because he skillfully balances on the edge of cliché – almost touching the nerve
of commonplace, then introducing the cutting edge of dissonance, testing the
longing for harmony – that he engages the reader to think.
Clayton uses a
simple story line, the loss of a beloved spouse, to ask big questions. Carefully
drawing his main characters, a bereaved husband and his barely teenage daughter,
he moves them through encounters with friends and relatives to elicit universal
themes, and his own shtick: What is life about? That makes this novel
compelling. He is not telling us just about confronting tragedy, but about the
search for meaning.
As in life, having explored human angst, the novel
provides hopeful promise but no tidy ending, leaving the reader both enriched
and wanting more. The framework, concepts and attachments are Jewish, but not
parochial; though more familiar to Jews, they are not exclusive.
simple story is about one man’s need to repair the world, tikkun
olam. That universal theme motivates millions of people who are concerned
about the environment, global warming, pollution, helping others and the daily
kindness upon which our fragile world depends.
The role of the artist and
writer is to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary; to use what we take
for granted and show how it is special. Clayton does that
The reviewer is a writer and journalist living in