Daniel Torday’s third novel, The 12th Commandment, centers on a murder in the fictional Jewish Islamic Dönme community of Mt. Izmir, Ohio. Zeke Leger, the editor of a magazine in New York, returns to Mt. Izmir, his college town in Central Ohio, for the funeral of a friend — and he ends up staying to investigate the murder of Osman, the sixteen-year-old son of the Dönme cult leader, Natan of Flatbush. Natan is the main suspect in the murder. And Zeke’s former college girlfriend, Johanna Franklin, is the lead prosecutor for the case.
The novel is punctuated by extracts from Natan’s prison diaries. These sections, in their abstract exploration of mystic traditions, may be slightly less compelling for some readers. To use a kabbalistic term, they may have benefited from a bit of tzimtzum, or contraction. Outside of his diary, however, Natan is one of the most vivid characters in the novel. In the hands of a lesser writer, he might have come across as a cartoon fanatic, or what Amos Oz called a “walking exclamation mark”; but Torday’s punchy dialogue and expertly drawn scenes bring life to Natan’s pontifications on Kabbalah.
Torday is a nimble prose stylist. He uses his descriptive powers in fresh and imaginative ways, from depicting Zeke’s wild, drug-induced mikveh bathing, to reporting matter-of-factly on the cold, barren Ohio landscape. Torday is also an ambitious storyteller. In addition to the murder investigation, he describes a struggle for control over Ohio’s soon-to-be-legalized weed and a renewed love affair between Zeke and Johanna. The rekindling of their romance unfolds mostly in her dark bedroom, under a ceiling of glowing star stickers. Their dynamic is funny and touching, but it feels a bit familiar.
Some of the best and most memorable scenes involve Zeke finding himself in the middle of tense confrontations between heavily armed cult members, the star linemen of the local high school football team, and the small town’s sheriff. Such moments feel alive and dangerous. As an outsider in these communities, Zeke functions as a proxy for the reader, who is learning alongside him about the traditions and beliefs of the sect. And, lucky for us, he is always at the center of the action.
The 12th Commandment tackles difficult questions of faith and fanaticism with humor and nuance. The disparate narrative strands that comprise the novel don’t quite come together at the end, but they nonetheless make for a strange, enjoyable ride.