The Commentary Tales

John J. Clayton has published four novels and now, with the appearance of Many Seconds into the Future, five short story collections, all of them distinguished. Yet, his work has received very little sustained critical attention over the years. At least in part, this may be ascribed to his late start. Now approaching 80, and a professor emeritus of modern literature at the University of Massachusetts, he began turning out stories in the late 1970s, and it took some while for him to hit his stride. Nonetheless, Clayton’s later stories and recent novels are just as engaging, his dialogue as nuanced and crisp, and his characterizations of women in particular more spot on than those of much better known contemporaries.

In February 2003, Clayton began his association with Commentary Magazine by publishing “The Contract,” a story I’ll return to later. Since then he has averaged about a story a year in the magazine, and his “Commentary Tales” comprise precisely half the contents of his current collection, Many Seconds into the Future: Ten Stories. In these stories, as in previous collections, Clayton shows a profound understanding of divorce, the consolations and pleasures of second marriage, tensions between fathers and sons, and the onset of mortality. They are also informed by Clayton’s deeply personal and idiosyncratically Emersonian embrace of traditional Judaism.

This is fictional territory Clayton has been patiently mapping, and obsessively returning to, for some time. “The Builder,” which was the closing story in Clayton’s 1998 collection Radiance, begins with an architect named Michael Kahn ruminating as his author casually manages the almost impossible narrative trick of thinking along with him without ruining the story:

So, God is there. Simply there. Nothing fancy for Michael, no choral music, no auras or penumbras. No mescaline tricks. Just God. For me—the word catches me in the chest and makes my breath pulse, blood thump in my temple. For me it’s almost erotic. I feel the danger of the word. But for Michael at that moment, it’s ordinary, always there, he just hadn’t known how ordinary.

But, however ordinary, this is a game changer for Michael, with repercussions that extend beyond the moment. A week later, while he is davening in his office, his partner Peter enters unannounced to discuss a project. He taps the crown of his head.

“That thing, what d’you call it?”

“This? A yarmulka.” Michael covers it with his palm as if protecting.

“Yeah. So. You gonna wear that ‘yamuka with clients around?”

Michael pulls out a file and ignores him. Peter opens his arms and raises his palms, accepting the burden of this craziness. “Hey. It’s okay with me you get a little nuts.” But he doesn’t leave.

What?

“You’re not gonna wear that . . . shawl thing?”

“Not with clients. It’s for prayer.”

“Well Ah’m fuckin’ relieved.”    

The exigencies of the fable trigger a shift in Michael from mere religious fervor into minor league madness. The agent for change is a somewhat dissolute Armenian visionary who is totally dedicated to creating a shelter for boys in distress. Azkarian’s effect upon Michael is transformative: He stops shaving, takes to wearing a fedora, and starts to walk heavily like his dead Orthodox grandfather, whose spirit he fancies he now cohabits.

In the end, however, Michael steps back from fanaticism. He leverages a “crazy leave” from the firm, gets a shave and a haircut, and sets out to work on a Saturday morning, with a crew that includes his son, to build a home wherein the lives of wounded kids might be mended. Plainly, to work on the Sabbath is a bitter pill. Still, Michael muses,

It’s like praying with his hands . . . He wants, fervently, to believe . . . that he’s helping to rebuild God’s world. His hands and clothes are filled, as in the old days, with sawdust. God’s world smells of machine oil and sawdust. Still, he misses something, and there’s no one he can tell. He misses the Original world. It’s God’s presence he misses . . .

If God is no longer simply there in the story’s final lines, it seems Clayton’s narrative presence now stands in God’s stead.

The work takes on a rhythm, it’s like a dance, the three men, Jeremy and this boy. And both the work and these words with which I shape the work, shape Michael’s sad peace this morning—both become a prayer, the same prayer in two languages.

Here, as elsewhere, dance is Clayton’s most congenial description of the creative process. Story, protagonist, author, and an intimation of God’s presence coalesce—dancers with the dance.

Clayton has told this story of genuine spiritual insight shading into madness several times. “The Builder,” for all its writerly virtues, still leaves a slight aftertaste of saccharine sentimentality. A decade later, however, Clayton would rework the narrative into the quirky, compelling 2011 novel Mitzvah Man. When the similarly divinely inspired and afflicted Adam Friedman must step back from the theological brink to keep his 14-year-old daughter, he does. At the end of the novel he pragmatically admits himself into a psychiatric hospital. But that doesn’t mean that God wasn’t there. In his stories and novels, Clayton often seems to be retelling “Eli, the Fanatic,” Philip Roth’s classic early tale of spiritual inspiration, Jewish identification, and suburban psychosis, from the inside.

 

John J. Clayton. (Courtesy of the author.)
John J. Clayton. (Courtesy of the author.)

Clayton did not begin as a particularly Jewish writer. In his preface to his 2007 collection Wrestling with Angels, he writes of his early work: “I do admire the writer—whoever he is. But whoever is he? The stories, the good passages especially, seem as if they were written by another person.” Going back to the stories collected in Bodies of the Rich, which Clayton published in 1984, one sees his autobiographical point. The standout is “Cambridge Is Sinking,” an evocation of the sour afterglow of the 1960s. Young, appealing Steve and Susan and their pal George get sloshed as they bid goodbye to Chairman Mao, SDS, and “all that.” At the story’s end, they clean up their messy flat, determined, as George puts it, not to become “casualties.” Steve is Stevie Kalman of the endangered species “existentialops meshugenah,” but no other Jewish note is struck. Here, as in other stories in the collection, the characters, whether Jewish or not, are skillfully drawn yet still broadly generic.

By contrast, in his mature work, Clayton’s Jewish sensibility is startlingly naked. In this respect his 1994 story “Talking to Charlie” is pivotal:

It begins as the old story, I’ve told so many stories of divorce and pain: six months back, David Kahn read by accident the wrong letter, and it was as if he’d already known, as if he finally had to open the door to the closet where the monster squatted . . . And in a rage, as if surprised, as if betrayed, as if such a thing had never entered his mind, he packed up, moved to a motel, drank—and fell apart. The usual divorce story, dismal, of pain and humiliation . . . ahh, you could write it yourself.

Leaving his ordinary life to live “like a monk” in a cottage on Cape Cod, he begins to feel a controlling presence in his life. Now he would like to just “relax and take let the guy take over.” For a moment it seems as if doing so will restore his life to him, but, as the narrator astonishingly says, “I don’t trust this story,” and in fact it closes with the troubled father and trusting child literally dancing, their problems unresolved. The last sentence belongs to the narrator, or perhaps to Clayton himself: “I watch him do his dance, while I do my own, hoping that I can hear the music, and that, at least for a while, David’s dance can take me home.”

 

“Many Seconds into the Future,” the numinous title story of Clayton’s current collection, was also first published in Commentary. Daniel Hirsch, a 60-year-old lawyer, unexpectedly receives a death sentence. He has inoperable brain cancer, which will close him down in a matter of months. Hirsch, an observant Jew, has been blessed with a loving second marriage and warm relations with his three bright, vivacious children. He is even on excellent terms with his ex-wife. Desiring above all else to live out his final days as “ordinary life,” the life he has lived but scarcely known, he conceals the truth from friends and family until he can no longer do so. The perspective this acceptance of death gives Hirsch—as if “he’s on a cliff of time, looking down into a valley”—enables him to see brief glimmers of the future, which he uses to take care of his family as best he can in these last moments and even choreograph his own demise. It is a moving depiction of a good man at the end of his life told with exquisite restraint.

Ordinariness is, it seems, central to Clayton’s understanding of both Judaism and the good life. In “The Builder” Michael suddenly grasps that whatever else God is, he, she, or it is “ordinary, always there, he just hadn’t known how ordinary.” In “Talking to Charlie,” when David is with his children, he pretends to talk over the phone to what he calls the “ordinary world,” though he is really talking to God. In another highlight of Clayton’s current collection, “Dreams of Freedom,” Mark, a middle-aged lawyer, survives a car crash that leaves him “lucky to be alive.” Four months later, the fact that he “can finally lift his arm above his head feels like a blessing.” Later still, “He’s able to throw a ball again. A miracle, that’s how it feels.”

Clayton would appear to be riffing here on the theological idea, classically championed by Nachmanides, that apparently natural phenomena—cherry blossoms, making love to one’s wife, an eagle in flight, a peeled orange—are, in fact, unnatural. They are ontologically unsupportable without the agency of God, “who makes the world anew each day.” For Clayton and his most characteristic creations, all life, all “ordinary” manifestations of nature, are in reality miracles, gifts emanating from the Creator who deserves praise and thanks.

What makes “Dreams of Freedom” so extraordinary is how effortlessly it entwines Clayton’s characteristic motifs. Looking in the mirror, Mark sees reflected the image of his father: He is grim, tired, and depressed. In re-evaluating the meaning of “success,” Mark alienates his brilliant, beautiful architect wife, who hadn’t banked on marrying a “depressive.” Soon, she is having an affair with, Mark admits, “a good man.” So he moves out.

But then a miracle occurs: Mark pulls himself together (or together enough), and some months later his wife makes him an unexpected offer: “We could let my sister take the kids . . . We could spend some time together. Would you like that?”

He has to respond clearly and at once! If he pauses to think more than a couple of seconds, she will feel ashamed for asking. What if he says, Let me get back to you. That’s how he feels. Then a door will close. But he isn’t sure . . . A true life is so much easier to manage alone. And absolutely nothing has been resolved. Nothing! Not a thing. Is she a woman with whom he wants to spend his life, a woman who can help him become a good man? Then he thinks about the kids, and—all right—not just the kids. He is aware of the tenderness in her face at this moment. He thinks: his family . . . All this before a two-second gap would make indecision apparent and embarrass them both. “I’d like that,” he says.

After she leaves, he dreams:

He’s running alongside some other runner, and as he passes, he sees the runner is his father. In his dream he thinks to himself, oh, he’s playing Aeneas; he will carry his aged father Anchises on his back. But no, for his father eludes him, and his father has changed, is younger, stronger; and they run together, run in perfect freedom, leaping rock to rock, flowing over fields and over hills.

This exhilarating image of filial reciprocity, a dream of ultimate reconciliation between father and son after a real one between husband and wife, seems to me nothing less than inspired.

 

In Clayton’s first Commentary story, “The Contract,” Max winds down his legal practice. He tells his wife that it is so he can study Talmud, but that’s not exactly true. His primary motivation is to care for Natalie as she steadily succumbs to cancer, while he is obsessively reading rabbinic literature, trying to figure out what all this means, though for his wife there is nothing to understand: “It’s like a tornado.”

As he carries Natalie’s reduced frame up and down the stairs, Max thinks of Moses (probably his Hebrew namesake) bearing the weight of the Children of Israel:

Maybe Moses looked into the burning bush or the fire on the mountain and saw in advance the black smoke rising. Am I willing to subject to such suffering the future children of our exile, children of children of children . . . A land of milk and honey? Dear God: We both know what’s coming. What kind of contract is this?

He thinks of his own two sons, “their children, their children. Born and unborn, what have I gotten them into? It’s not just (God forbid) future Holocausts. It’s everybody’s life—everybody’s ordinary suffering, everybody’s death. Losses.” Max’s days pass in this disquieting fashion until he hatches a staying action: In their family room, he recreates a homegrown Aruba resort where he and Natalie had once vacationed with their young sons, replete with colored lights, a heat-lamp sun, deck chairs, and margaritas.

Two days later Natalie drags herself downstairs and, almost miraculously, giggles, “‘Max! A movie set.’” Reclining for a back rub with suntan oil, she enters into the spirit of the dance. Their two adult sons are at first quarrelsome and obtuse until, by degrees, they too get it. The four improvise their version of Aruba, and the reader too grasps that in their mutual play inheres something profound. “But the gift,” Clayton writes, “has been given and the gift has been received, the contract passed on.”

Earlier in his career, Clayton wrote a full-length critical study of Saul Bellow, and one cannot help but be reminded of Mr. Artur Sammler who, in the famous last lines of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, “was aware that he must meet, and he did meet—through all the confusion and degraded clowning of this life through which we are speeding—he did meet the terms of his contract. The terms of which, in his inmost heart, each man knows, as I know mine. As all know. For that is the truth of it—that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.”

The salient difference between these two literary epistemologists is that Bellow’s fiction imparts a sense of grievance as well as responsibility for the terms of life’s contract. Bellow’s way is that of his famous creation, freewheeling Augie March, not of older brother Simon who unsuccessfully tempts Augie to embrace the “ordinary life” of marriage, family, and business. Somewhat like Bellow’s Sammler, Philip Roth’s Everyman springs from a Jewish family buzzy as a hive but is fated to die alone. Clayton’s emphatically communal vision, on the other hand, insists that meaning is a function of historical continuity and actual community, the bequeathing of a contract fulfilled to the best of one’s abilities to one’s seed.

Ought one be abashed to bracket Clayton between American Jewish literature’s sturdiest oaks? Perhaps. He will never win the Nobel Prize. His work will not quite bear that weight. But he is hardly alone in this, and for technical skill and sheer immersive interest, Clayton’s short fiction outclasses many more famous practitioners of the art. If full recognition of his gifts has been long in coming, this may be due to Clayton’s uninhibited exhibition of his religious sensibility. He wears his Jewish concerns almost defiantly, the way Roth’s “Eli, the Fanatic” wore the Hasid’s black coat. But this is his sensibility and these are the stories he has to tell.

Along with his audacious novel Mitzvah Man, some 12 to 15 of Clayton’s stories, including several in the present volume, are gems, shimmering with originality, craft, experience, compassion, and, rarest of all, wisdom. In Many Seconds into the Future, John J. Clayton upholds the terms of his contract admirably.

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