Many Seconds into the Future
John J. Clayton’s work is inextricably tied to humanism, but as his stories, first published in Commentary magazine, make clear, his fiction is unashamedly Jewish. Not in cheesy ways, but as a reflection of what he calls “the radiant.” His literary quest is as Jewish as it is heartbreaking because, while one’s arms may stretch to heaven, one is rooted to the quotidian earth.
As Clayton once said in an interview, “My characters, while they may have intimations of God’s world, the true world, usually end up having to fall back into the world of compromise.”
The 10 short stories collected in Many Seconds into the Future: Ten Stories (Modern Jewish Literature and Culture)
(University of Texas Tech Press, 228 pp. $24.95) are among Clayton’s most accomplished, and he deserves a wide readership. His fiction is always clearly written and always takes on elemental problems. Consider, for example, the awareness that one has contracted a terminal illness. In the title story, Hirsch, a successful Boston attorney, deals with his newly discovered brain tumor by ruminating that:
…he’s not Mozart, he’s not Schubert. What’s a few more years [muses the sixty-year-old Hirsch] more or less?
At some point, he wants to believe, God will roll up the scenery and redeem us all. We’ll all be our original selves at Mount Sinai hearing the thunder.
As others—who knows?—will be at Mecca or Bethlehem. And God will spread a tallis of light over all of us and say, ‘I know how strange your lives seemed. Now that I can explain it to you, I don’t need to, do I? The meaning is in your bones.’
Clayton came to seriously consider what it means to be a Jew as an adult, and while he studied with a rabbi at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (where Clayton taught for years), it is fair to say his sense of radiance, his fixation with death (no doubt a result of his adult son’s death) and much else that fills his fictional landscape are filtered through his fertile imagination.
Secular Jews populate much of contemporary American Jewish fiction. If the names of protagonists Cohen or Goldberg were changed to Smith or Jones little would be lost or gained. By contrast, fiction that is Jewish from the inside out, that explores the spiritual and transcendent, is rarer. Clayton belongs to the latter group. His characters are as conflicted as they remain spiritually yearning. For people who wonder where the American Jewish short story has gone since the days of Bernard Malamud, it is a pleasure to recommend Clayton’s superb latest collection.