Fans of The Chosen, The Promise and My Name Is Asher Lev may be surprised that Potok's latest work isn't even remotely connected to his usual subject, Jewish life in America. Instead, the author, who served as an Army chaplain during the Korean War, has turned out a slight novel about an old peasant couple and the injured orphan they rescue in war-torn Korea.
While Potok skillfully conveys the boy's fear of being abandoned, the woman's fierce maternal instincts and the old man's resentment of the child, the characters never quite emerge as flesh-and-blood creations. Meant to be a meditation on how men are molded by life's unpredictability, I Am the Clay (the title is a biblical reference) ends up as a heavy-handed allegory.
The book is further freighted with repetitive descriptions of the family's hardships. Frequent accounts of rice soup made from boiled snow leave the reader hungry for more and feeling that this meager tale would have made a better short story than novel (Knopf, $20)