Oy. Even if there’s no one named Portnoy here, Clayton’s well-crafted stories abound in existential complaints large and small.
You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate Clayton (Writing/Univ. of Massachusetts), but it might help in catching nuances. Clayton takes pains to distinguish universalism, the erasure of tribal differences, from universality, global acceptance of a tribal work, but still, he writes, “I hope for Jewish and non-Jewish readers; but I speak as a Jew.” Some of the later stories collected here have the Jobian sense of accumulated testing: in the author’s case, by the death of a son; in his characters’ cases, by the usual pains of life, of marriages gone dull or dead, of children who distance themselves and memories that flee, all of which can be responded to only by “the Jewish mudra of acquiescence: lower lip out, shoulders up to ear, neck retrenched turtle-like, hands open.” Some of Clayton’s stories, most of them early ones—dating, that is, to the ’70s and ’80s—are a bit lighter of touch, marked by genial squabbling, “postmortems on lovemaking” and furtive tokes on inexpertly rolled joints. A high point in this already strong gathering is the mid-career story “The Man Who Could See Radiance,” with hints of magical realism butting up on Kafkaesque gloom, its protagonist a man who “saved his heart in a safe deposit vault and brought out small sums when he could.” More pointedly up on the headlines, “The Builder” finds the generations worrying over fine distinctions: When a veteran wrestler-with-God offers the observation that the great Mao-induced famine in China in the early ’60s adds up to five holocausts, his interlocutor protests that there’s no comparison—but agrees that cognitive dissonance is really “dissonance of the heart, and how do you live with that?”
Mature, literate work.