The novelist and short story writer might just be American Jewish literature's greal baal teshuvah, or one who returns to religion

New Time Religion

Wrestling With Angels: New and Collected Stories
By John J. Clayton

The Toby Press, 616 pages, $27.95.

Kuperman’s Fire
By John J. Clayton
The Permanent Press, 304 pages, $28.

Jews are at the vanguard of everything happening in America today. Surprisingly, this is still true when it comes to religion. Thanks to technology, or terrorism, thanks to the threat of any millennial vagary, Americans of every hyphenated identity have lately been coming back not only to God but also to religious community.

Just as Orthodox Jewish parents from the Pale of Settlement begat Socialist children who’d swarm the salons of Warsaw, Berlin and Paris in the 1910s and ’20s, America’s Jewish Boomers, who’d kept on truckin’ all the way to suburbia, have now returned their own children — born in the crass 1970s and ’80s — to their forefathers’ fold. Might not the flourishing of campus and summer experience Judaism and the revitalization of the Lower East Side be the very ingathering that is to herald the arrival of the messiah and the reunification of tongues? Eden’s serpent swallows its own tail.

Born in New York in 1935, novelist and storywriter John J. Clayton (his family name formerly Cohon) seems the perfect elder rabbi for these prodigals. He is American Jewish literature’s great baal teshuvah: a Hebrew term that characterizes a revolutionary or counterrevolutionary reversion to Olde Time Religion but translates, literally and literarily, as “a master of repentance.”

Throughout his work (myriad stories, three novels), Clayton’s middle-class American Jewish characters reveal themselves as us: as Jews concerned with the genocides of others; as Jews concerned with the processes by which we might sustain kosher life; as Jews suspicious of institutional loyalty at the expense of inspiration or “soul”— and so, as Jews who have become involved with protesting the murder in Darfur; as Jews who have become involved with environmentalism and with vegetarianism; and as Jews who have lately forsaken exclusive affiliations with Conservative or Reform Judaism, allowing Hasidim to grow from a minor Russian cult into a dominant mode of American Jewish life, the primary venue for those of us seeking our spirituality just a little more bearded. “I hope for Jewish and non-Jewish readers; but I speak as a Jew,” Clayton writes in his own introduction to “Wrestling With Angels: New and Collected Stories,” a compendium of more than 30 stories from throughout his career.

Ultimately, such a summation has to shock; midcentury assimilationists must be awed in response — among them Clayton’s colleagues Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud (“May their memories be for a blessing”) and the still-living, still-writing Philip Roth — if they’re not themselves shuckling disappointedly in their graves. This generous story volume appears a summer after the release of the author’s guileless third novel, “Kuperman’s Fire.” If 2007 is very much a retrospective year for Clayton himself, then what its two publishing seasons have given us, in these two books, is nothing less than a strange retrospective-in-advance — of what it might mean to be artistically Born Again into the oldest of Covenants.

We begin with the stories, the majority being culled from three books, two of which have previously appeared: “Bodies of the Rich” (1984) was a tense and tenebrous debut, its author concerned with sex, relationships, altered mind-states and alternative politics; “Radiance” followed (1998), and the diction became lightly conventional, though the heart sadder, theologically expansive; finally, “Wrestling With Angels” a wholly new collection, crowns at volume’s end. Its tone is, without doubt, majestic, if also religiously pathetic.

The story “Cambridge Is Sinking!” is Clayton’s best (written in 1972, it went unpublished in book form for a decade), and it gives you an idea of what its author was smoking early on:

“George. One day last year when George was tripping he found his Harvard diploma in the trunk under his bed: he ripped it into a lot of pieces and burned — or began to burn — the pieces one by one. But halfway through he chickened out and spent the rest of his trip on his knees staring into the jigsaw fragments as if they were entrails of Homeric birds, telling him something.”

The story concerns young college graduates floating aimlessly into adulthood, trying not to sink: “I don’t want to be a casualty,” says George’s roommate Steve, and it almost seems like a promise: I won’t be. Here are a few great and revealing sentences: “Cambridge is a lie. Doesn’t exist never existed. I am in my cups. The moon a cracked saucer. We are hardly acquainted.” Admixed with such stoned joking is elegy: “All the psychedelic flowers were fading, wilting dingy, like the murals on WPA post-office walls.”

By the time Clayton’s next collection came along, more than a decade later, those who’d burn out had already burnt out, the smoke had cleared, and a new transcendence was in the air, that titular “Radiance” — not a spirit of pushing boundaries, but of erecting them, or of learning to live with them. Tuning out the material world, maturity had suddenly dropped in: Steve and George would have jobs, wives and kids (in that order).

This is from “The Builder” (1998) — which concerns an architect-carpenter who’s half guilty Christ and half innocent flower child (the Michael here is the rough draft of the Michael Kuperman of Clayton’s later novel):

“On his walls are pictures of completed buildings — a co-housing development he’s particularly proud of, a whole street of rehab apartments, the rest subdivision houses, modular but each unique and strong. He likes what this ‘Michael’ does. But from the quiet of his prayers he sees Michael’s life as a complicated fabrication, substantial and invented as architecture. He feels he might tiptoe out of Michael’s body and let it go on doing. Then he could slip out of the invented world into the world God made.”

By story’s end, “Michael” is reconciled to Michael, his job converted to metaphysical calling: “It’s like praying with his hands, he thinks. It’s okay to be here on the Sabbath. He wants, fervently, to believe this, to believe that he’s helping to rebuild God’s world.”

Later, religiosity cedes subject to religious text in “The Contract” (2003): “Suppose I was a little child in the desert when the Lord appeared to Moses at Sinai, and now that whole generation is dead, my mother, my father, even Moses; we’ve crossed the Jordan and taken cities, and I’ve got grandchildren of my own. And as a child of the sojourning I wonder: was it worth it?”

The One True Answer is affirmative, and affirming: With the mescaline finished, the deserts not hallucinated but real, the contracts gone over and the builders already building, the practical communes with the soul. Having begun with tales of young love, marriage and divorce, Clayton’s stories end their collection with professional, secularized adults having workaday revelations and dropping the hallowed names of Hasidim “Reb Yitzchak” and “Reb Menachem” (among others) as if they’re water cooler co-workers or old friends from grad school — at first just visiting, then here to stay.

Soon Clayton stopped innovating formally and began writing, instead, homiletic and pious prose that would alternate between insight and pedantic embarrassment: “The rabbis are said to have built a fence around the Torah, the ten thousand distinctions — koshering your kitchen, standing up to honor the Torah — that can preserve holiness, be bridges to holiness. But they can also be debased into marks of a club, a club that separates us from each other and from God.”

Whichever separation — whether it’s a personal separation of the sacred within from the secular without, or a public separation of the faithful minyans from the Godless minions — Clayton, throughout the 1980s and ’90s, separated himself: He became a writer of what has to be called, despite its universal skill, “community fiction.” While readership for Yiddish literature was, after the Holocaust, understandably small, and lessening daily, Yiddish’s greatest authors didn’t do anything, and understandably didn’t want to do anything, to make it any smaller. But Clayton, writing in English, knowingly limits his readership, has the freedom to limit his readership — and seems to think that, emulating God, in limitation is to be found great purity of idea, or expression.

This obsession with purity comes through most clearly in “Kuperman’s Fire,” a novel that begins as a story of spirituality’s late or Last Days resurgence and ends as an inspirational thriller.

Michael Kuperman was once Michael Cooper. As he changed his name back to his paternal grandfather’s, he began becoming more religiously observant, and so growing further apart from Deborah, his Jewish though adamantly irreligious wife. Kuperman’s mother dies, and he says Kaddish for her and grows a beard. Meanwhile, Deborah mourns herself as a successful businesswoman, as an unfit wife and mother — demonstrably not the Yiddishe Mama that Kuperman’s was. Kuperman’s small IT company is about to merge with a mega-company, and, through this merger, has business dealings with a firm called — originally — Chemicorp. Through an attempt at making various computer systems compatible, Kuperman’s team uncovers secret files regarding sales of chemicals that could be used in unconventional warfare. Documents are found, decoded — then video of dogs being experimentally gassed, and then people: Kurds in Iraq.

Kuperman, inspired by the model of his maternal grandfather, Jacob Goldstein, who saved Jews from Russian pogroms and so, the Holocaust, begins to fight back against Chemicorp, tempting the violent and eventually (for one friend) deadly retribution of international chemical weapons dealers and drug traffickers, motley torturers and assassins.

According to Clayton-cum-Cohon-cum-Cooper-cum-Kuperman, the legacy of all Jewish suffering is the directive to do right at all costs: Deuteronomy 16:20 offers, “Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue,” which is the slogan of both the American judiciary and the zealots they ignore in Guantanamo Bay. To Clayton’s credit, a Chemicorp executive suspected of complicity in these chemical sales is a Jew. To Kuperman’s credit, this landsman gets no breaks from him, no special treatment by dint of co-religion. Rwanda and Bosnia are mentioned, and in the novel’s last quarter, a globe’s worth of intelligence agencies involve themselves in Chemicorp’s investigation; Kuperman’s life is saved, maybe even by the Mossad. Disbelief suspended with suspense, Clayton’s novel ends with a Zionist triumph humanistically integrated with various modes of American reconciliation: White business partner is reunited with black; religious husband is restored to irreligious wife….

Theology aside, such a return to religious community or to what’s been called cultural Judaism has meant, in America at least, a return to cult — to the Jewish sensorial: the melt in the mouth of pastrami on rye, pickles, the crack of matzo and the traditional songs; Chicken Soup for the Not Very Discriminating Soul. Jews, who because they never underwent the Enlightenment had to invent Modernity (and so Zionism, psychoanalysis, relativity, communism, critical theory, existential literature and dodecaphony), have now lapsed into kitsch. Being spiritual means, today, “being Brooklyn.” Kuperman and family lay low from Chemicorp’s cronies with a religious family — landslayt whose grandparents were saved from Russia by Jacob Goldstein — on that borough’s Coney Island Avenue. It is impossible that such a mass return to religion or race identity could mean anything more than sentiment, or nostalgia. Individuals, however, are communities of one, are religions of one, and writers were once the great individuals. In their aimlessness that might read as mystical promise, Clayton’s earliest stories seem holier than what would come: It’s perhaps because they never mention God that they seem suffused with Him, or Her, or Nothing.

Joshua Cohen is a literary critic for the Forward.

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