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Q & A with… John J. Clayton: Amherst writer’s modern Jewish super-hero, “Mitzvah Man”

A Modern Jewish Super-Hero

John J. Clayton’s new book, “Mitzvah Man” tells the story of Boston businessman Adam Friedman, who, after the tragic death of his wife, “finds solace through living the mitzvot” essentially becoming – in his mind – a Jewish “super-hero” – preventing a violent crime and beginning the “Mitzvah Foundation” to help those in need. His actions make the news and he gains followers who consider him a modern-day prophet. Yet, his loved ones, including teenaged daughter Lisa, are concerned by his actions and aren’t sure if he is a holy man… or crazy.
Clayton, the author of “Wrestling with Angels: New and Collected Stories” and “Kupperman’s Fire” among other books, lives outside of Amherst with his wife, Sharon and their family. He has taught modern literature and fiction writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst wince 1969. He belongs to both the Jewish Community of Amherst and Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton, and he is chair of Adult Education at CBI.  
He recently talked with the Jewish Ledger about “Mitzvah Man.”

How did your book “Mitzvah Man” come about…what made you want to write this story?
A: I didn’t know what story I wanted to write.  I never do know in advance.  I thought about a man recovering from the loss of his wife and knew that his turmoil would be the catalyst for breaking out of his ordinary self.  I guess I believe that the ordinary self is a shell, a false self.  Casting off that shell, Adam grows closer to the true world, which is the world in which God is present.  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.  But at least they experience intimations of God’s world.  Adam leaves the life in which he is in control.  He finds himself in the hands of God.  Yes, of course this is his defense against pain and meaninglessness—sure, he’s manic as a way of coping.  But he’s also seeing the world more truly.  It’s become fashionable to suspect any search for depth under surfaces.  There are only surfaces.  It’s not just that the world may be meaningless but that even the search for meaning is meaningless.  I’m in the opposite camp.  We pretend to live at the surface of things while our real life is in dreams or a longing for the sacred that’s really true—really true—underneath things.  There is a sacred world just brimming under or over the mundane, pulsing through the mundane.   It isn’t for me a question of theology, a question of belief.  I’ve been bumbling to shape a rhetoric that can bring myself, and the reader, deeper, closer to mystery.  This can be risky.  It can so easily become hokey, puffed-up, false. What feels true and useful to me as a writer is this: There’s the unreal world given us by the media, by our culture, by every culture.  Then there’s God’s world.
Adam, held in God’s hands, is like a swimmer catching a wave or a hang glider catching a wind.  There is, I think, a rhythm to things, a pattern.  We can call it sacred reality.  I don’t think it’s crazy to say that Adam, full of mishegos as he is, is attuned to this rhythm.  Here’s a passage I like:
“The ocean grows louder.  It’s a gray morning.  They climb a cleft between dunes, sea grass on both sides.  Preparing for their visit, the grasses have spun elegant circles around themselves.  At the top of the passage, they stop to watch the ocean, near high tide, churned up from last night’s storm.
They pass the charred remains of a beach fire, step around jetsam of winter storms—Styrofoam fishing floats, sprawls of netting and splintered driftwood.  “The detritus of God,” he says, opening his hands to display God’s bounty.
“What’s that mean?  Detritus?”
“Broken leavings,” he said.  “Debris.  God’s leavings.”
“Da-ad?”  She sings it in two syllables, high and low, as she always does when he’s said something to irritate her.
“Uh huh?”
She needs a few seconds, furrowing her brow, sucking on her lip, and curling her fingers as if they were wrapped around the neck of a mental violin, to get it out.  “Dad?  So just tell me this. Really.  What’s the difference if you say ‘debris’ or you say ‘God’s debris’?”
“There is a difference.”
“So?   Tell me.  What?”
“Thank you for asking.  Really.  It’s so wonderful you’ve grown up enough to challenge me and not let it go with a wry look, like ‘How uncool.’”
“It’s not uncool.  It’s weird.  I mean.  And frankly?  So fakey.  Dad?  Why God’s debris or whatever the word was?”
“Okay.  Plain old debris is random, is ugly, is accidental; it’s something to cover up.  Right?  It’s chance, it’s chaos, and worse than chance—uch—it shouldn’t be there.  It’s garbage.  God’s debris—in my highfalutin way I said ‘detritus’— implies there’s a secret plan going on, it’s like God’s work of art.  Okay?”
“Wow.  Well, so do you really think it is—is God’s work of art?”
“It’s hard to explain this, but the thing is, listen, it’s not necessary to think of it as true or false—it’s a heuristic—a useful way of seeing data.  A better way.  At least I prefer it—don’t you?  it’s so much more beautiful and just as true.  Look how simple and clear everything is.  How pure.  Why see it as garbage?  Nobody’s forcing you.”

Is Adam a Jewish super-hero… or a little nuts?
A: As I’ve implied—he’s both.  I had a lot of delight in giving him almost-superpowers.  Almost.  Everything he does can be taken as coincidence or personal will, but I give the reader permission (that the reader really wants!) to see him as a prophet, a holy fool, a man held in God’s hands.
I believe in the possibility of goodness.  I rarely write about twisted, dark characters with empty lives.  My characters want to be good, want to be kind.  Adam may be neurotic, but he’s a loving man, responsible, who wants to be a good father, whatever he’s suffering himself.  He is a “Mitzvah Man.”  That is, the trope of superhero–Superman, Batman, Spiderman–is countered by his being a protagonist who offers kindness and love.  He tries to express the mitzvot in his life.

Is this a Jewish story or one for all audiences?
A: Both.  Sholem Aleichem is a Jewish writer for all audiences, isn’t he?  The critic Ruth Wisse writes, “Some critics have mistaken the broad appeal of Jewish writing for proof that it belongs to no particular people, but this is to confuse universalism, which seeks to eliminate tribal categories, with universality, which is the global resonance of a tribal work.” Absolutely!  Tolstoy’s War and Peace is deeply a Russian novel.  It’s also universal.  It speaks to us in America a century and a half later.
Saul Bellow often took the position that he wanted to be seen simply as a writer, not as a Jewish writer. I understand. He doesn’t want to narrow himself, writing only for Jews or only from a Jewish perspective. Neither do I. The writer should not be limited  by his or her ethnicity, religion, gender or any other pre-existing category.   I want to write about the human soul. I’ve always been irritated by those enamored of identity politics, who assume that to write about blacks you have to be black, to write about women you can’t be a man. I believe we can understand each other. In fact, literature exists to let us see beyond the confines of our origins, class, race, etc. Yet I am a Jewish writer—meaning that I draw for my writing on specifically Jewish materials, including Torah, rabbinical exegesis, Hasidic philosophy, and Jewish practice.  It’s crucial to the writer I am.  I don’t just happen to be Jewish.  But I’m also crucially an American writer, and more specifically an American who’s studied British and American literature. How would it be possible for my work and my vision not to be grounded in Shakespeare, in D. H. Lawrence, in F. Scott Fitzgerald? How can the vision of any Western writer not be shaped by Greek tragedy?

What do  you hope your readers get from this book?
A: The joy that comes from seeing the soul of a character expand, seeing new life burst forth.  It’s a comic novel that arises from tragedy.

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