Short Fiction, Long On Identity And Family
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Short Fiction, Long On Identity And Family

New collections by John J. Clayton, David Shrayer-Petrov and Judith Felsenfeld

John J. Clayton’s short stories have been awarded the O. Henry and Best American Stories prizes; “Radiance” was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. The 10 stories in “Many Seconds into the Future” (Texas Tech University Press), deal almost exclusively with Jewish men, aging, longing, aspiring, regretting, remembering and searching. These are tales of fathers and sons, of brothers, of husbands. Women have names but little color.

Most of the stories unfold with contemporary urban America as a backdrop, although within a few pages the narrative may span decades. These are stories grounded in everyday life, where Judaism is taken seriously. While his writing is muscular and straightforward, a sense of the mysterious and the unfathomable permeate many of these stories.

In the first story, “Many Seconds into the Future,” Daniel, a successful lawyer who has been diagnosed with a deadly brain cancer, reveals his diagnosis to a senior partner who suggests that he stop working, travel, visit friends. Yet what Daniel wants is “ordinary time.” And he must keep his diagnosis from his wife and children for as long as he can — “as soon as I tell them, the time won’t be ordinary.” Of course, as he declines, he can no longer hide from his family.

In “Reading to Jacob,” Michael, a businessman and confirmed skeptic for whom “there is nothing beyond or within the material world,” has lost his younger brother, Jacob, in a club fight. Jacob was a musician, “a singer-songwriter of love songs, human and divine.” In his grief, “so filled with the absence of Jacob,” Michael visits the small shtiebel that Jacob had attended. Here, he becomes aware of Jacob’s presence and is drawn back again and again. He realizes that the rabbi can barely muster a minyan, offers to help with calls and emails, and gradually the minyan builds. In the Psalms, he recognizes himself: “We haven’t got the Word. All we’ve got is our longing.”

In “The Camera Eye,” Eddie remembers a boyhood trip to Saratoga with his father, an appliance salesman, and his father’s boss. Eddie’s father is compliant, verging on servile; he has the role of chauffeur for the trip. Yet, when the boss suggests that they visit a whorehouse, he finds the courage to say “no” at the risk of his job. “I was proud of him,” Eddie muses years later following his father’s death.

The Jewishness of the men in these stories — whether they are practicing or cultural Jews — is core to their being. Most discover something about themselves as they encounter the tradition, whether in the form of tefillin, Hebrew or Reb Nachman of Bratslav.

Clayton’s knowledge of the prayers, of the Psalms and of ritual are woven through these tales.

Sharon Anstey

Fablesque in tone, redolent of both Chekhov and Kafka, David Shrayer-Petrov’s 14 stories in “Dinner With Stalin and Other Stories” (Syracuse University Press) explore questions of identity, whether they be larger matters of Russian-Jewish roots, or the individual issues of many of the collection’s protagonists.

Infused with the Russian-born author’s medical expertise (he is a physician and scientist), “Behind the Zoo Fence” is set in 1960s Moscow. Dr. Garin, who works ungodly hours at his hospital and rarely sees his family, observes his ill patient magically heal by hearing the bellows of a sick hippo that lives in the neighboring zoo. Both the doctor and the patient lose and then regain their identities as individuals.

“A Russian Liar in Paris” explores issues of being and looking Jewish, and mistaken identity. In the title story, “Dinner with Stalin,” we witness a modern-day dinner party of Russians that an unapologetic Stalin look-alike attends. Here we feel the long reach of Stalin’s legacy. This story feels very “meta,” particularly when the narrator says, “Like in Ray Bradbury’s short story ‘Darling Adolf,’ Bradbury’s character took to his role as Hitler enthusiastically; and what about here?”

Some of the stories take liberties with magical realism; “The House of Edgar Allen Poe” features a live dwarf and an intelligent, obedient beetle as well as other elements of the fantastic. In the final story, “The Bicycle Race” the opening line “I’ve been writing this story my whole life” draws attention to the authorial intrusion that appears in many of these pieces and suggests possible autobiographical links. Many names and places used throughout the stories have Russian historical or literary significance, though most of them are unfamiliar to the average reader and would remain inaccessible if not for the extensive author notes in the back of the book.

Shrayer-Petrov’s characters are united in their Soviet-Jewish roots, and the collection fits snugly into the category of immigrant literature. His prose is simple and effective, each story having an interesting premise at its core. The ways in which Shrayer-Petrov unpacks these premises are fairly satisfying in most cases. Taken as a whole collection, the immigrant experience reflected here feels authentic and poignant.

Leah Damski

In her debut collection of 11 stories, “Blaustein’s Kiss” (Epigraph Publishing), Judith Felsenfeld provides glimpses into the corners of family life. She writes about indignities large and small and the accompanying swirl of emotions; her tales involve Jewish grandmothers, daughters, cousins and Jewish men, too. Several of the stories cross over generations, and she captures the particular ways her characters speak and how they relate to one another. Her writing is spare and compelling, leavened with humor. A number of the stories include episodes in assisted living centers, where aging children and their much older parents reconfigure their relationships.

The title story is full of romantic promise: the reader quickly learns that Ben Blaustein is a widower living in a senior facility, active in the Residents’ Council, who meets his new love in the near-sighted section of the Intergenerational Chorus. Felsenfeld’s story, “The Lover,” which was broadcast on National Public Radio’s “Selected Shorts” also involves later-than-expected love.

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