It is July 1939, Hitler will launch World War II in a little over a month, and in New York, Eddie Rubin is 17 years old. On this particular Friday morning, Eddie and his father have been invited by his father’s big-shot boss, Mr. Stone, to accompany him on boat ride up the Hudson to see the races at Saratoga. Dad advises Eddie to hitch his star to Sid Stone, of Stone Appliances.
Eddie has heard his father’s praise for Sid Stone all his life – always followed by a sarcastic comeback from his mother. “Sidney Steinberg,” she sneers, reminding her husband that his much-admired boss is a Jew, no better or worse than they are.
“So. You think you’re getting somewhere?” she says, questioning the importance her husband attaches to the boat trip with The Big Guy. “The man wants you to carry his bags.”
She’s right, and Eddie’s father is willing to carry Stone’s bags, bring him cold drinks and more, an obsequiousness that shames Eddie, who has pegged Stone as a phony. But in the story “The Camera Eye,” in John J. Clayton’s new collection, Many Seconds Into The Future, the trip to Saratoga proves to be a turning point for its Jewish characters, after they learn how far Stone is willing to go for fun on his jaunt outside the city.
That’s how it goes in many of these 10 stories, and in Clayton’s four-story collections and four novels, most recently Mitzvah Man.
“It’s like listening to the first three notes of a classical piece,” Clayton, 79, says by phone from Amherst, Mass., where he lives. “You may not know what the piece is, but you know who wrote it. In my stories, you’re always going to get these damned fathers.”
Like the 14-year-old Ben’s father in “Getting Out in One Piece,” this father is a bully, verbally and physically abusive, a man of frustrated ambitions who is forced to work for his successful brother. His mother inserts Ben in the middle of their fights. Clayton often tells his stories through the multiple points of view of the passage of time. As a man in his 70s, Ben broods on childhood events in the 1940s, like the night when his father’s sister stripped away her brother’s violent exterior to reveal a battered child, beaten by his own father.
“The father is autobiographical,” Clayton says of Ben’s father. “My family was built around my uncle and my father. A relative bossed my father around and he took it out on me.”
When Clayton’s father was a boy, his father used a belt to beat him. And when Clayton was born, “my grandfather gave my father a big belt. That’s how it was back then.”
“I was pouring tears,” he said of returning to stories such as “Many Seconds Into The Future,” which opens the collection. In that story, the middle-aged protagonist begins to have premonitions after he is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. His practically last act binds his family more tightly together after his death. The story is about “a triumph of family. It isn’t just about loss,” Clayton says.
Clayton says the only story in the new collection that he can read easily is the fable-like “The Name Changer,” in which Mel Breuer gets a new lease on life after meeting a chasidic rabbi who urges him to change his name so that he can elude the angel of death. Mel, like all of Clayton’s Jewish protagonists, are thoroughly modern Jews, who struggle with questions of faith, but are reasonably sure that superstition and magic are not part of God’s plan.
“Most of them are not casual Jews. They take Judaism seriously and are connected liturgically,” he says. “In my stories it’s good to be a Jew. It’s not theology – but there’s an intimation of the sacred, of mystery.”