The Book of Stone examines the evolution of the terrorist mentality and the complexities of religious extremism, as well as how easily a vulnerable mind can be exploited for dark purposes.
Matthew Stone has inherited a troubling legacy: a gangster grandfather and a distant father—who is also a disgraced judge. After his father’s death, Matthew is a young man alone. He turns to his father’s beloved books for comfort, perceiving within them guidance that leads him to connect with a group of religious extremists. As Matthew immerses himself in this unfamiliar world, the FBI seeks his assistance to foil the group’s violent plot. Caught between these powerful forces, haunted by losses past and present, and desperate for redemption, Matthew charts a course of increasing peril—for himself and for everyone around him.
Lyrical and incendiary, The Book of Stone is a masterfully crafted novel that reveals the ambiguities of “good” and “evil”.
“Devastating, gripping and beautiful. The Book of Stone is about fathers and sons, how the past haunts the present, how trauma transcends generations and how wrong we can be about those who made us who we are. What will haunt you forever is how Papernick brings you right up to the border of justice and terror, and then makes that border disappear. Open this book carefully. You will close it changed.”—Dara Horn, award-winning author of The World to Come and A Guide for the Perplexed
“The Book of Stone is going to have everyone on the planet talking. Blisteringly smart, provocative and passionate, Papernick’s astounding novel layers a complex father and son story onto the Jewish/Arab conflict, where fierce loyalties and stunning betrayals are about to detonate. Nothing is as it seems in this divided American world: the political becomes personal, religious faith overrides family, and fear can shatter the possibility of love. An astonishing achievement that’s sure to ignite dialogue—and as the best works of art do, push us to see the world differently.” —Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You
“Equal parts thriller and literary epic—a smart, haunting novel that entertains as it apprises. Papernick writes with impressive breadth, in turns crafting the minute details of a psychological profile and dissecting the vast socio-political complexities of religious zealotry pushed to its outer limits. The Book of Stone is an important read for our historical moment. “—Sara Nović, author of Girl at War
“Jonathan Papernick’s The Book of Stone is a psychological thriller with a complex soul. In the tradition of writers like Robert Stone and Ian McEwan, Papernick describes the quest to save oneself by redeeming history, and the perilous consequences that arise from confusing the two tasks. It’s a harrowing, distinguished book.” — Steve Stern, author of The Wedding Jester and The Angel of Forgetfulness
“The Book of Stone is many amazing things: a searingly-told father-son story in which profound estrangement is tenuously and dangerously bridged through the intermediaries of books and ideas; a modern family tale that is itself embedded in the never-ending, violent tribal drama of the historical conflict between Jews and Arabs. In all its layered psychological intensity, Jon Papernick’s new novel is riveting.”—Aryeh Lev Stollman, author of The Illuminated Soul and The Far Euphrates
Matthew Stone opened his eyes and looked down onto the street. People in twos and threes moved languidly in the pale yellow haze as if constrained by a barely discernible gauze. A whisper of breeze on his face brought him back into his body, his hard-beating heart. It convulsed in a sudden, discordant two-step that left him gasping for air. The sleeves of his father’s robe hung beyond his wrists and flapped like wings as he leaned over the rusted railing, the street five stories below vertiginous, noisy. A bus roared past, a trail of vapor shimmering in its wake.
Stone pulled the robe tight around him, binding his chin against his chest. He smelled his father’s scent, the sour odor of his tobacco. It was ironic, he knew, that he would seek comfort beneath his father’s robe. After all, the exact article of clothing that drew his father away from Stone during the Judge’s lengthy trials was the very same robe that embraced him when the endless empty space around him was too much to bear. As a boy he snuck into the Judge’s closet, awed by his father’s tremendous bulk, and pulled the majestic robe — which forever smelled of the stale smoke of Nat Sherman Originals — from its heavy wooden hanger. He would drape the robe over his slight body and feel full, as the vast emptiness around him closed up like a slamming door. In an instant he felt like a superhero, like Batman, or the Caped Crusader. Anything was possible.
But that was a long time ago.
It was hard to believe that morning the Honorable Walter J. Stone had lived and breathed and existed. He was still reading a book at five o’clock in the morning, as if preparing for a lecture later in the week. Now he was what? An empty vessel? Food for worms? Nothing. Forever is impossible to conceive until it’s upon you: the realization that forever is forever is forever. The Judge was gone and Stone was alone in the world.
As an only son, Stone faced the overwhelming task of selecting his father’s burial accoutrements. The body was barely cold and the funeral director, a thin arrow of a man with jet black hair and a weak chin, who introduced himself as Mister Ehrenkranz, had asked whether the Judge would enter eternity in a muslin shroud or a linen one, Israeli or one handmade here in America? It had never occurred to Stone that somebody actually had to make such a decision, as though picking out a Father’s Day tie at Macy’s. I don’t care, he thought, his brain firing blanks.
He let Ehrenkranz decide.
“You’ll note,” Ehrenkranz added, handing Matthew his father’s beloved school ring — yellow gold with a glittering blue sapphire in the center, bracketed with the words Columbia University — “shrouds have no pockets to carry man’s material possessions into the next world. However, it is customary for the deceased to be wrapped in his prayer shawl. Do you happen to have it with you?”
The pigeons cooing on the ledge below sounded almost human, a choir full of sorrow and regret and loss, unintelligible, but almost human. Stone threw one leg over the railing, feeling dizzy exhilaration, a vein jumping in his wrist. He stood on the street side of the railing now as the pigeons chattered, beckoning him forward. You can fly like us, the pigeons teased, you have wings. Stone spread his arms wide and knew the black robe could just as easily be his own burial shroud; all he had to do was step forward, and the pain would be gone in a pure act of erasure. He could fill the empty space below him in an instant.
Instead, he pulled a pack of matches from his pocket and lit a loosely-rolled joint. As he inhaled, the heat of the burning tip near his skin, he was reminded of the elemental power he held in his trembling hand. He dropped a match onto the street, lit another match, held it for a five count — nearly burning the tips of his fingers — and dropped it. A cluster of pigeons rose into the sky and scattered, a pungent rush of air blowing past on the updraft. A few streets over a car alarm wailed.
Looking across the river towards the city and the fading pink sunset, he could see the monolithic Twin Towers and the crenellated spires of the Woolworth Building all the way to the Chrysler Building halfway up the island, rising like a stainless steel rocket ship from the dissonant chaos of Midtown. He took another hit of his joint, pondering. This squat, ordinary apartment house set against a backdrop of brown brick tenement buildings was exactly the sort of end he deserved. As the smoke filled his lungs, his father, vibrant with life, appeared before him floating in the air, wearing a three-piece suit and half-moon glasses, a paragon of scholarly civility, shaking his colossal bald head in disapproval.
“Do it,” his father said, with characteristic cruelty. “You’re nothing but a coward, Matthew. You’re not even a shit stain in my shorts.”
“Would it make you proud?” Stone said aloud, his voice weak.
But the Judge vanished as quickly as he had materialized.
Now, in the cool air of the rooftop, a pigeon alighted on the railing beside Stone, strutting with stupid avian bravado; a challenge. He flapped his wings and disappeared into the sky. Stone spread his arms, the fabric flapping in the wind. A single green iridescent feather floated in the air just out of Stone’s reach, taunting him.
“I can do it if I want to,” Stone shouted to the sky. It was strange how foreign his voice sounded to his ears in the thick evening air. “But I won’t. Because you want me to.”
He slumped against the railing, breathless, realizing he had made up his mind to live. For now. Stone may have nodded off because the sky was dark, full of heavy black clouds rolling in high on the wind as eerie yellow lights came on in the streets between his tenuous perch and the river. Brooklyn looked somehow more lurid now that night had fallen, its low buildings more shabby. Its windows were filling with broken silhouettes of WIC-assisted poor bent over dinner plates in the blue glare of their televisions; rooftop water tanks hunched like wild things about to spring; disembodied renegade shouts filled the air, the streets below burning with anger freed by the cover of darkness. Manhattan, too, looked different, its jagged spine illuminated, lights flaring along the length of the island like torches lit by primitives in another age.
Stone heard footsteps at his back, and then: “What the fuck are you doing?” It was Pinky. Stone had almost forgotten, amid the bewildering whirlwind of emotions, that he was staying with Pinky now; his father’s Midwood apartment was no longer safe. “You look like Count Dracula in that thing. Get off there before someone gets hurt.”
Stone had come up to the roof to get away from Pinky, who understood death and loss the same way a twelve-year-old boy understands sex by gawking at pictures in National Geographic magazine — distant, exotic, virtually impossible. But Pinky had phoned at the right moment, with Stone in a panic at the state of his father’s apartment; he had come right away and filled a white cube van with banker’s boxes of the Judge’s belongings and loaded them into his street-level apartment. Pinky had offered Matthew a mattress and a bare room, but he offered no comfort aside from empty platitudes and a firm handshake. As soon as the last box was stacked in the middle of Pinky’s living room, he cranked up his stereo, subwoofers pulsing, blasting some hideous, bass-thumping rap music that threatened to split Stone’s head in two. Pinky produced a nasty resin-filled bong from a kitchen cabinet and offered it to Stone with a be-my-guest gesture meant to be comic, but that only made Pinky more of an insensitive jackass.
My father just died, Stone thought, and this is what I’m left with.
All Stone’s childhood friends were gone. Danny Green was in med school in Baltimore; Alan Grinstein, Harvard Law; Alvin Zuckerbrot, Stanford Law; Jay Coopersmith head chef in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Amsterdam; Mickey Zin was married, lighting out for the suburbs of Westchester County; Ami Alfasi, dead two years in the Security Zone in Lebanon–buried on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
Only Pinky, Michael Pinsky, the schmuck who dropped out of twelfth grade to try out for the Yankees, who got genital herpes from a prostitute in Paterson, New Jersey, who believed Jack Ruby was a great American Jew, only Pinky remained. He was a friend, but a friend of habit more than desire. They had known each other a long time and they were the last two childhood friends left standing. It was hard to believe they had once had so much in common, but passion for baseball cards, bike riding and ding dong dash was a flimsy foundation for an enduring bond.
“It’s time to come inside, bitch,” Pinky said, offering a hand to Stone as he climbed back over the railing. “We’ve got a funeral tomorrow.”
Stone returned to the apartment reluctantly, wordlessly, as he and Pinky descended the stairs. When they were back inside, Pinky asked Stone if he wanted to play blackjack or something, but Matthew didn’t answer and locked himself behind the bathroom door. He hung the robe on a hook and turned on the fan. Then he sat down in the cool bathtub, and lit a cigarette. Stone unbuttoned his pants, pulled aside the zipper and found the pale white of his upper thigh. It had been a long time, but the skin called to him now. His skin was nothing more than a tight-fitting body bag anyway. He took a deep drag on the cigarette, the tip a bright orange star. His hand shook as he maneuvered the cigarette towards his thigh. An old purple scar, in the shape of the letter C smiled at him, beckoning. The hair burned first, then the skin. His vision went white and his blood began to calm and, soon, he closed his eyes.
The morning sky was a bright Dodger blue and the glare of the piercing sun was sharp and pricked Stone’s retinas like needles. Dressed in his only suit, a modish single-breasted number he rarely had cause to wear, he asked Pinky if he had an extra pair of sunglasses. Pinky disappeared inside the apartment, leaving Stone alone on the sidewalk. His chest was tight, as if filled with cement — some invisible force had been crouching on his chest all night long, whispering in his ear, whispering something in a strange ancient language he could not understand. He wanted to go back inside and close his eyes, but he was even more afraid of sleep than he was of facing the real-life nightmare of his father’s funeral.
A long black limousine idled in front of the apartment. The neighborhood homeboys, who had been throwing dice on the pavement and laughing when Stone arrived yesterday, now gathered around the limo, faces pressed to the tinted windows in curiosity. Stone could not imagine ever laughing again. For some reason, he had the irresistible urge to shout something terrible at them, something sharp and biting, like a broken bottle to the face, something he would later regret. He just wanted to be alone with his anguish, and the shouting and hollering before him made him feel like he was losing his sense of reason.
“Take your pick,” Pinky said, tossing Stone a Bloomingdale’s shopping bag. There must have been a dozen new pairs of brand-name glasses still in their original packaging. He fished out a pair of dark Ray-Bans and slipped them on.
“Lookin’ good,” Pinky said.
“What’s with this?” Stone asked.
“I figured we should ride in style. You really want to gypsy cab it to your old man’s funeral? Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered.” Then Pinky turned to the homeboys and said, “Nothing to see here. You think Biggie’s back from the dead? Well, he ain’t.”
They drove in silence out to Queens, that inimitable borough of escape, of airports and cemeteries, as Stone imagined the unimaginable, the fact he would be burying his father so soon, before he had accomplished anything in this life. Stone had no job, no advanced degree, no skills. Nothing. He would be alone, no wife, no girlfriend, no children, no mother, no aunts, no uncles, no friends to share his burden. Just Pinky.
How could his father die so young? There were ex-Nazi executioners still living into their eighties, unrepentant killers on death row eligible for Social Security, and his father, a fit sixty-three, was gone. It didn’t make any sense. His father had been a force of nature, molded out of pure brass. Even pale and faded, his father struck Matthew as awesome, frightening. Even when the cancer had ruined his voice, withered his body, his will was radiant. It was clear the Judge didn’t believe he was going to die, lying in bed with his half-moon glasses perched on the end of his nose, reading to the end, a book propped on a pillow before him. Then yesterday morning, not long after sunrise, with the swiftness of a sudden summer storm, they both realized he was going to die.
The limousine passed a ragged handful of protesters waving handmade signs by the cemetery gate announcing: “Abu Dis & Ras al Amud = Palestine!” and “Arab Blood from Zionist Stone.” Stone had become so used to his father’s divisive cult of personality the clownish activists barely registered in his mind. The ride out had numbed him with a sort of vestigial comfort, the light humming of the road soothing his nerves, and he drifted in and out of consciousness. But he was awake now, as Pinky rolled down the window, flipped them the bird, and called out something crude.
Stone recalled the time his father brought him to Montefiore Cemetery as a boy to pay respects to his hero Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Of course this stern-faced man with the cruel expression and round rimless glasses, whose framed picture his father kept on his desk, meant nothing to Stone. He remembered the brutal black granite slab platform set in the center of a limestone plaza. His father handed Matthew a small stone and asked him to place it on the grave, and rather than doing as his father asked, he said why?
“Jabotinsky was the creator of the first Jewish army since the time of the Romans…” his father began.
“I know,” Matthew said. “But why the stone?”
“It indicates someone has visited, and a stone, unlike flowers, lasts for eternity.”
Eternity is forever and death is for eternity.
Stone was shocked to see how many people had come to pay their respects to his father. There were hundreds upon hundreds of men gathered, some dressed in the customary black of the ultra-Orthodox, bearded and black-hatted, others wearing knitted skullcaps, typical of militant Zionists, many of whom spent time studying or living on the West Bank.
“Quite a shit-show,” Pinky said lighting a cigarette. “You sure this isn’t the great American beard growing contest?”
“Put it out,” Stone said. “It’s disrespectful.”
Overcome by swirling vertigo, he leaned against the side of the limousine for balance. Who were all these people? He knew his father had achieved a lot in his life. He had accomplished good deeds, but also suffered his share of controversy. Somehow, when Stone had imagined the funeral in his mind as he tossed beneath the thin sheet on Pinky’s bare extra mattress he was certain had fallen off the back of a truck, he’d only seen himself, alone with his father, saying goodbye. He had imagined a poignant moment after his father had been lowered into the ground in which he would close the book and move on with his life.
“There you are Matthew. I was worried you were going to be late.” It was Ehrenkranz, the funeral director. “You might want to clip this on to your garment to show you are grieving. Near the heart, if it feels right to you.” He handed Stone a small black ribbon, torn at the corner, which Stone slipped into his pocket. Ehrenkranz led Stone by the elbow through the throngs of mourners towards the graveside. “This is a very nice turnout,” Ehrenkranz said. “You should have seen the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s funeral. Thousands of mourners. Absolute chaos. Trust me you don’t want that.”
Stone did not recognize one single soul, not one familiar face, as strangers reached out and blessed him and wished he be comforted amongst the mourners of Zion.
When they arrived at the grave, Ehrenkranz asked Stone if he was all right.
“All right is entirely relative,” Stone said. “Especially here.”
Ehrenkranz gave an avuncular laugh, and patted Stone on the shoulder. “Here comes the shomer.”
A watery-eyed old man stepped forward with a solemn expression on his worn face. “Your father was a great man and warrior, a friend of Israel, and of Jews everywhere. The Chofetz Chaim says, ‘The sign of a great man is the closer you get, the greater he seems.’”
These past months, Matthew had been as close to his father as he had ever been, physically; tending to him like the good son he would never be, taking him to his appointments, making sure his medication was right, but still he barely knew him. His father had treated him with scorn, as if he were some sort of servant not worthy of conversation. He knew people believed his father to be great, but to him, the Judge was just distant, cruel, and unforgiving.
The old man fished into his jacket pocket and produced a small, battered prayer book. He handed it to Matthew. “It is tehillim,” the man said, “as a keepsake.”
“The book of Psalms,” Ehrenkranz said. “It is the duty of the shomer, or watcher, who stays with the body so it is not alone, to recite Psalms to comfort the departed. It is a wonderful tradition to know a body is never left alone like a piece of lost luggage at a bus station.”
Stone thanked the old man for the book and approached the grave.
He looked down into the empty hole in the ground. The soil was damp and black like coffee grounds, miniscule roots protruding from the earth here and there, life springing up in the midst of death. So, this is where it all ends; in the dark, in a box, underground. The thought terrified Stone, and he gasped for breath to compensate for the certainty that he, too, would one day arrive at this point. Would his father approve of his neighbors? Would it matter that Mister So-and-So’s son had married a shiksa, or that Mister Such-and-Such with the extravagant tombstone had been a social climber in life with no substance to speak of? It didn’t matter now, but at the same time, it did. It was a pleasant spot, however, open to plenty of sunlight, with tall shade trees standing nearby.
Someone behind him clapped a hand down onto his head. For a moment, Stone was afraid he was going to fall into the grave, but he held his balance and turned to see a bearded man in a black hat and long gabardine coat, his deep-set eyes sepulchral, empty.
“You must cover your head.”
Stone realized now the man had placed a kippa on to his head, one of those satiny vinyl jobs old men tended to wear, propped high on the crowns of their heads like a tent.
“I don’t want to,” Stone thought. But this was no place to make a scene. The man, perhaps sensing Stone’s reticence, grabbed Stone by the shoulders and said, “You will wear the yarmulke and honor your father.”
He would honor his father whichever way he chose, and thought for a moment of tearing the thing off his head, but when he saw Pinky pulling faces behind the man, with his own kippa clipped to his gelled hair, he realized this was not a fight he needed to have. He placed the kippa back onto his head, looked the man in his empty eyes and said, “Satisfied?”
“You are in mourning?”
“My father is dead,” Stone said.
“Then you will rent your garment as an expression of your grief for the loss of a loved one.” Before Stone had the chance to consider the man’s words and what they meant, the man had torn the pocket off Stone’s jacket with a swift yank, so the fabric flapped down below his heart. “Now, you are amongst the mourners of Zion,” the man said, stalking off into the crowd.
“I’m amongst no one,” Stone thought. This was his only suit, and the man had ripped it with such arrogance and entitlement because of some meaningless tradition that did nothing to comfort Stone. Who were these people? And how could his father have tolerated them? Stone was not part of this world, and for that he was glad.
Matthew scanned the crowd to distract himself from the unpleasantness at hand. He began to count in his head, by fives, how many people were in attendance. He doubted he knew half a dozen people who would care enough to pay their respects to him if it were all over now. The thought depressed him, and an immense empty space opened up around him. Somehow, in the blazing spotlight of the sun, he shivered in his suit. He had reached a hundred and fifty when he saw, standing on a small grassy hill beyond the last ragged group of mourners, a slim dark-haired man, face pressed to a camera, its enormous telephoto lens a giant eye out for a day at the circus. Why couldn’t the media just leave this one alone? His father was dead, nothing mattered anymore. The story was over, the funeral a final parenthesis on a complicated life that ended too soon. He imagined the photograph the next day in one of the local tabloids, the ghoulish headline punning on their family name for the final time. But something caught Stone’s attention: the way the man tilted his head from side to side, as if trying to work out a crick from having slept badly. Among all the black-clad mourners chatting in a noisy mélange of English, Hebrew and Yiddish, this man was different.
Stone failed to notice the casket arrive at the graveside. A rabbi was reciting prayers. The prayers meant nothing, repeated by rote in an ancient language that had no relevance at all to Stone. As the casket descended into the ground, he imagined his father wrapped in the white shroud and prayer shawl the Judge had told him he had received at his bar mitzvah over fifty years ago.
Stone had been so ill at ease at the funeral home that when Ehrenkranz asked him whether he had his father’s prayer shawl with him, he had taken the opportunity to leave at once to go find it. He had only left his father’s apartment a few hours earlier, but when he arrived he saw the lock had been jimmied and the door left ajar. Stone felt as if he had been dipped into a pool of freezing water as he called out, “Hello!” He heard no answer and entered the apartment, half expecting to see his father still in bed, reading. He called out again, heard nothing, and now, filled more with anger than fear – who the hell would rob a dead man? – he slammed the door behind him and pulled the deadbolt.
The apartment was trashed. His father’s precious books, yanked from the shelves, lay scattered around the floor; his drawers overturned; keepsakes and tchotchkes lay smashed on the ground. A panicked fist of anxiety gripped his throat and he fought to gain his breath. Something told him not to call the police, not to report the break-in. He was alone, had never been so alone before. But, gathering one of his father’s books from the floor, a yellowed, paperback copy of Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Stone realized no, he wasn’t entirely alone. He discovered, as he flipped through the pages, that his father had underlined pertinent passages and made marginal notes throughout the book. He paused for a moment at a passage his father must have marked years ago with a graphite pencil – “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances to choose one’s own way.”
Frankl had survived the Nazi death camps but had lost his parents, his brother and his pregnant wife and had the strength to write those words. Stone was barely a quarter century old, and had suffered no such tragedies. And yet, he was overcome by such loss and emptiness. In a blind fever he began to gather the books and stack them up in towering piles, nearly as tall as himself. The Judge collected rare books, from “In the beginning…” and his 18th century reprint of the Gutenberg Bible through to the Spanish Inquisition and the Jewish mystics, from biographies of the American presidents to the voluminous writings of Churchill and Freud, to Carl von Clausewitz and Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Each one was underlined, marked or annotated in some way and, in this way, his father was still alive. The impenetrable mystery of his father lay in those books. The Judge was speaking to Matthew, guiding him, as he discovered in book after book, sentences, as bright as gems, meant to show him how to navigate his path forward. Matthew continued stacking thirteen volumes of Rashi’s Torah commentary, smelled the pages and ran his fingers over the Hebrew words his father had read. More religious books: the Tanach, bound in green leather, the Gemarah, and the Shulchan Aruch, Joseph Caro’s code of Jewish law. The religious books were unmarked, but the soft pages had been read again and again.
Just yesterday, in the hours before his father had slipped away forever, the Judge had, with monumental effort, motioned to a thick book on his bedside table. Matthew had propped it on the pillow for him and opened it for the Judge. The Judge moaned. Wrong page. Matthew flipped to another page and then another, until finally the Judge was calm. His father’s eyes moved across the page. Matthew thought his father was reading out of habit now, barely registering the words. Soon he drifted in and out of consciousness, his voice destroyed by the cancer, muttering the words of the Shema and “God Bless America,” languages mixing and blending. Matthew went to move the heavy book from his father’s chest, but the Judge gripped it with surprising strength and Matthew relented. And now the Judge, alert for the last time, recited the Aramaic words of the Kaddish, enunciating every syllable of the ancient recitation with crystalline clarity, before slipping back into delirium.
Matthew wanted to call someone, anyone, to fix what was happening to the Judge. A chill of panic rushed up and down his spine, but then he realized there is no cure for death, and it was making its appearance at last. As if scrolling through the major players of his life, the Judge called out the names Daddy, Bunny, Abi, and Matthew, three generations of his family. The Judge also called out the name Henry, a name Matthew did not recognize. When he asked the Judge “Who is Henry?” the Judge did not answer.
Could it be that Walter Stone had had another son Matthew did not know, a son who had not failed to disappoint? Matthew figured anything was possible, but why the insistence, and why now, when he had never said the name Henry out loud before?
Soon Matthew no longer understood what the Judge was trying to say, as if he had already passed over into the other world and was speaking its timeless language. He muttered “Seligman” in his sleep and awoke with fright in his eyes, repeating the name, “Seligman. Seligman,” And then in the same breath, “Henry.”
When Matthew asked again, “Who is Henry?” the Judge mumbled some words, something about “the numbers.”
He asked, “What numbers?”
“Which, which,” the Judge said with difficulty, and Matthew realized to his horror that even now, with communication so tenuous between them, the Judge was correcting his grammar. He dabbed water on his father’s lips for the last time, and the Judge had said with difficulty, “Seligman. Seligman.”
Then the Judge was silent, and Matthew Stone was alone with the corpse of his father.
He stared in awe for a moment, barely comprehending that his father, speaking just moments earlier, no longer existed on the earth. Stone reached for the book spread open on his father’s chest. It was volume two of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, open to page 1613, the section discussing the succession of Greek emperors of Constantinople. The words at the top of the second paragraph were underlined in red. He read out loud as if they had to be spoken to be understood. After the decease of his father, the inheritance of the Roman world devolved to Justinian II; and the name of a triumphant lawgiver was dishonored by the vices of a boy.
The graveside prayers were over now, and someone handed Stone a shovel. His father’s casket looked so small and inconsequential down there in the ground, as he hefted a shovel full of dirt into the air. He tossed the first clots of earth onto the plain pine casket and it sounded like his own bony knuckles knocking on the door of eternity. It was almost impossible for his mind to accept this was happening, like comprehending with absolute certainty there is no God and we are alone in the universe, and it struck Stone with a sudden panic. He was sick; he knew for certain he was sick in the mind, sick in the body, his blood feverish with approaching death, his nerves vibrating with the contagion of his condition. He thought about climbing down into the hole and throwing his arms around the casket and embracing his father at last. Instead he shoveled, and shoveled and shoveled, until Ehrenkranz placed a soft hand on Matthew’s, bringing him back to the world. Ehrenkranz took the shovel from Stone’s hand and Stone realized he had been crying.
“It’s all right,” Ehrenkranz said. “There will be a time when you will understand the purpose of your pain. Right now, you need to find a place to put the pain.”
As the crowd dispersed, Stone shook hands with dozens of strangers, deaf to their words, blind to the pitying expressions on their faces, embarrassed, not for his tears, but for the fact his only suit was torn.
A young bearded man in a knitted kippa approached Stone and offered his condolences. Stone responded automatically and turned to head back to the limousine where Pinky held court, cracking up the driver with some inappropriate joke.
The man was in his early twenties, squat and pear-shaped with a patchy ginger beard. “Matthew, wait a second.” He held a cellular phone in his hand and offered it to Stone. “Someone would like to speak to you.”
Who could possibly be calling him at this moment? He did not recognize the pear-shaped man, and his blank expression told him nothing. Stone took the phone in his own hand and sucked in a deep breath. “Hello?”
“Matthew,” the familiar voice said, “I am so, so sorry for your loss.”
In an instant, Stone was gasping for breath, suffocating: my father’s voice. He was silent. Am I losing mind? This cannot be happening, my father is dead and buried in the ground beneath my feet. But his father, so competitive, so driven, could not bear the thought that his useless only son had outlived him. He had focused his incredible will, gathering all his rapidly dispersing energy to make this phantom phone call, to destroy his only son, who had wept at the grave like a weak child.
The voice continued, “It is never easy to lose a parent. But your father will be the first in line when Redemption comes. Baruch Hashem.”
It wasn’t his father’s voice. The voice was similar, Stone realized, but it was not the same; it reflected similar upbringing, similar age. It was Seligman.
“Matthew, are you there?”
Stone was silent again for a moment. His father’s old friend had not made the trip from Israel. It was natural he would call to offer his condolences.
“Uncle Zal,” Matthew said. It had been a long time since he had called him that, a long time since he had considered Seligman with anything other than revulsion.
“I understand you will not be sitting shiva for your father. But you should not be alone at a time like this.”
“I have no place to host.”
“I understand, but it is important you say the Mourner’s Kaddish for your father,” Seligman’s voice, thousands of miles away, digitized into bytes and codes through fiber-optic lines and reconstituting itself as a ghoulish facsimile of a man’s voice, free of any warmth or humanity.
“As the only surviving son it is your obligation, your duty. You understand your responsibility, don’t you? Now tell me, where will you be saying Kaddish?”
Stone’s worst fears had been realized. Seligman was an emissary sent by his father from the Other World to belittle him, make him feel small, the way the Judge had done his entire life. The finish line was always being extended, just out of his reach. He would never be free.
“I highly recommend this book for book clubs because Papernick’s story elicits discussion about issues such as religious and political fundamentalism, terrorism and violence.”
“This may not be an uplifting tale of faith reconsidered — ‘The Book of Stone’ ain’t Broadway’s ‘The Book of Mormon’ — but it’s an engrossing read about a sorrowful soul whose search for meaning leads to a very dark mission.”
“Who is susceptible to the morbid attractions of terrorism? Our popular media have made clichés out of half a dozen answers. Jonathan Papernick has created a terrifying novel that illuminates the dark corners of those souls who will give their lives for a cause without regard for their own suffering or that of others.”
Share This:“Matthew Stone’s father was a celebrated judge who died disgraced because he went too easy on men who murdered Arabs. Now Matthew, the star of this rich, demanding novel, emerges as inheritor of his father’s books, money, and lethal hatred of Palestinians. Yes, this is a crime novel, but we spend much time in […]
“This intelligent and timely thriller is told through a Jewish prism, but Papernick’s persuasive insights into the nature of fanaticism and its destructive consequences could be applied to any ideology. Highly recommended.”
Jonathan Papernick would like to connect with your book group. If your book group has six or more participants, you may sign up to have the author join your group’s discussion of The Book of Stone via speakerphone or Skype/Facetime.
To sign up, please send an email to Jon with the words “Book Group” in the subject line. In the body of the email, please list: 1) the number of people in your group (six or more participants– feel free to bring friends!); 2) the phone number at the location where the group will meet (please make sure the phone has a speaker function); and 3) the city and state where the discussion will take place.
Please also give three potential times and dates when Jonathan Papernick might join your discussion, with time zone specified. Available times depend on the time of year and Jon’s teaching schedule. He is available most evenings.
Please plan to have your group discuss the book first; Jonathan Papernick will then join your discussion for 20 minutes to answer questions. (The times you propose should reflect when you would like the author to call in, rather than the gathering time for the group.)
Thank you for reading!
Would you like some questions to kick off the discussion within your group? Please feel free to avail yourself of the following:
1) The novel is set in Brooklyn, and spirit of place plays a large role in the story, informing characters’ moods and actions. What does the setting contribute that wouldn’t have been found in another city. In short, why Brooklyn?
2) The title The Book of Stone refers to the Stone family, but the title works on other levels as well. Why else do you think Papernick gave the novel that title?
3) The Book Of Stone is very much about fathers and sons. Matthew lives in the shadow of his father, the Judge; Walter Stone lives in the shadow of his father, the gangster Julius Stone. Is one’s life inexorably informed and shaped by the lives of those who came before, or are we free to cut our own paths? Do we bear any responsibility for the actions of our predecessors?
4) Grief can be accompanied by vulnerability and loneliness. How might you have reacted to Seligman’s “friendly” overtures if you were in Matthew’s situation?
5) Books play a major role in Matthew’s attempts to understand his father better. But Matthew’s readings lead to disaster. Can we say that there is such a thing as a dangerous book?
6) The novel is set during the Jewish High Holidays, a time of redemption and renewal. Is redemption actually possible, or are certain actions totally unredeemable? Are any of the book’s characters beyond redemption?
7) If the Judge had not meddled in Matthew’s relationship with Fairuza, do you believe the couple would have lasted for the long haul? Explain why or why not. And why is Matthew so attracted to Dasi? What do you think their relationship is really about?
8) Pigeons appear again and again throughout the book. What do they represent to Matthew?
9) In The Book of Stone, the character Isaac Brilliant says that Jewish blood has been considered cheap for a long time, that Jewish blood is permitted blood. Given Jewish history and current events, do you agree that much of the world views Jewish blood as expendable?
10) The best endings to stories are both surprising and inevitable. Did the novel end the way you expected? What do you think happens next for Matthew Stone?