Healing the world, one soul at a time

The simple story is about one man’s need to repair the world, 'tikkun olam.'

Mitzvah Man 521 (photo credit: Texas Tech University Press)
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 daunting.
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.
The 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 magnificently.
The reviewer is a writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.