November 20, 2018

A dysfunctional family’s long journey to seder in a dystopian America

All the stars are in alignment for a remarkable new book by novelist and short-story writer David Samuel Levinson, “Tell Me How This Ends Well” (Crown Publishing/Hogarth). Set in a dangerously dystopian Los Angeles a scant five years in future, the story focuses on the Passover gathering of the Jacobson family in Calabasas, and the author’s timely commitment to truth-telling in the guise of a comic novel is evident from the outset.

A Passover seder at the Jacobson house, we are told, is “like a terrifying golem made from the clay of behavioral tics and personality disorders — a litany of ills and a penchant for hypochondriasis and full-blown neurosis, with bouts of accompanying sanctimony, blinding narcissism, and a plain, old-fashioned, wrath-of-God-style guilt.”

The prime mover of the Jacobson family’s dysfunction is Julian, the paterfamilias, who possesses an “obscenely pronounced underbite, which went hand in hand with the rest of his handsome albeit cavemanlike face, thick, bushy eyebrows, broody, overhanging brow.”  Julian is the problem to be solved by his three long-suffering adult children, Jacob, Moses (known as Mo) and Edith.

Jacob is a gay man with a problematic German lover, and his siblings call him “Gay-Jay.” Mo is a “registered dietician and semifamous actor.” Edith adopted the nickname Thistle in early adolescence, and Jacob describes her as “our Thistle of the Congregation of Least Resistance.” We see the story through the eyes of each sibling in turn, but it is Gay-Jay who first imagines taking the final Oedipal step to protect their ailing mother from what they fear are the evil intentions of their father, a notion that may or may not be a joke.

“[Jacob] had a sneaking, awful suspicion, though, that because he was the youngest and thus usually dared and bullied into mischief by his older brother and sister, it would fall on him to interview the hit men, whomever Mo had found to do it, probably former, disbanded Mossad operatives — the USA was rife with them,” Levinson writes. Mo has a different idea: “If we were keeping with the Passover theme, then we’d drop him off in the middle of the desert without food or water,” Mo cracks. “He wouldn’t last forty hours, much less forty days in that heat.”

But the author’s anxieties transcend those of the Jacobson family, which is why “Tell Me How This Ends Well” has been compared to Philip Roth’s memorable novel about an anti-Semitic version of the history of the United States, “The Plot Against America.” Levinson imagines that an isolationist American president has refused to come to the aid of Israel in a war with Syria, Iran and Lebanon, a catastrophe that has resulted in the destruction of the Jewish homeland, a massive influx of Israeli refugees, and an upwelling of violence against Jews: “[A]nother torched synagogue, another murdered youth, another suicide bomber on the 405 or the 101, the anti-Semitism that swept across L.A. with the tenacity of a wildfire.”

So Levinson dares to play out a worst-case scenario that overshadows the woes of all unhappy families: “They’d given Israel back, yet the world still came for them,” muses Edith, who happens to be a professor of ethics. “How could anyone have guessed that a mere eighty years after the end of World War Two the Jews would be made to roam the world yet again?”

Levinson has been compared by the early blurbers of his book to authors ranging from Roth to Nathanael West to Flannery O’Connor. (I would add Joseph Heller to the list.) But Levinson also deserves to be praised for qualities of his own — a mastery of verbal invention and rhetorical pyrotechnics, an imagination that shocks us by showing us an alternate future that is all too plausible nowadays, and a gift for humor so dark that we find ourselves dancing on the edge of the grave.

By the time we reach the Passover seder itself, the opening words of the Four Questions (“Why is this night different from all other nights?”) suggest a new, different and especially terrifying answer.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.