Title: Mitzvah Man
Author: John Clayton
Publisher: Texas Tech University Press
Readers of Clayton’s short stories know that he is not only a master craftsman, but that his stories are inquires 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 captivating and enticing story. It is precisely because he skillfully balances on the edge of cliché, almost touching the nerve of the commonplace, then introduces a cutting edge of dissonance, that the reader is encouraged 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 ask the question: what is life about? That makes this novel compelling. He is not just telling us about confronting tragedy, but about the search for meaning.
As in life, the novel provides hopeful promise but no tidy ending, leaving the reader both enriched and wanting more. The framework is Jewish, but not parochial or exclusive, though Jews will be more familiar with the concepts.
Ultimately, this simple story is about one man’s need to repair the world – tikun olam. That universal theme motivates millions of people who are concerned about the environment, global warming, and helping others – the altruism upon which our fragile world depends.
The role of the artist and writer is to take what we know, the ordinary, and make it extraordinary, to use what we take for granted and show how it is special. Clayton does that magnificently.
Moshe Dann is a writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.