By David Sa­muel Levin­son, Hog­a­rth/Ran­dom House, 404 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS -

The year is 2022. A pol­icy of non­in­ter­ven­tion in the Mid­dle East by the United States and Europe has led to war and the dis­so­lu­tion of Is­rael. Jewish refugees have come to U.S. cities by the mil­lions, fol­lowed by still-state­less Pales­tini­ans. A ris­ing tide of vir­u­lent anti-Semitism is sweep­ing the coun­try and sui­cide bomb­ings are reg­u­lar oc­cur­rences in Los An­ge­les, the set­ting of David Sa­muel Levin­son’s slightly fu­tur­is­tic novel, Tell Me How This Ends Well, which takes place in April dur­ing the Passover hol­i­day. The Ja­cob­son fam­ily is gath­er­ing at the el­dest brother Moses’ home to cel­e­brate, and the sib­lings — Mo, Edith, and Ja­cob — are hatch­ing a plan to mur­der their fa­ther, Ju­lian.

To call Levin­son prophetic may be hy­per­bolic, but noth­ing in his en­gross­ing, en­ter­tain­ing, and in­sight­ful novel seems far-fetched. In­stead, the po­lit­i­cal land­scape feels like an un­com­fort­ably prob­a­ble re­sult of cur­rent Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy. The au­thor keeps his spec­u­la­tion rea­son­able so that this fu­ture is be­liev­able: There are no food pills or jet-packs in 2022, but there are iCars. There is so lit­tle wa­ter left in Cal­i­for­nia that it is strictly ra­tioned, and wa­ter theft is treated as a se­ri­ous crime. The gov­ern­ment has not passed leg­is­la­tion re­strict­ing the free­dom of Jewish peo­ple, but anti-Semitic demon­stra­tions, vi­o­lence, and van­dal­ism have be­come com­mon enough that many Jews now hide their re­li­gious iden­tity, and it can be dif­fi­cult for them to se­cure em­ploy­ment. In a world where ci­vil­ity and civil rights have crum­bled, the Ja­cob­son sib­lings’ plot against their fa­ther does not come across as par­tic­u­larly evil or even un­eth­i­cal — es­pe­cially as Levin­son slowly re­veals their rea­sons, while Ju­lian ar­rives at Mo’s and opens his big, ter­ri­ble mouth. He is a bully, plain and sim­ple, who delights in caus­ing and wit­ness­ing the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers.

Tell Me How This Ends Well is nar­rated in the third per­son, from the al­ter­nat­ing point of view of the sib­lings and their mother, Roz, with each sub­se­quent sec­tion build­ing upon the last to deepen the reader’s un­der­stand­ing of just how trou­bled the Ja­cob­sons are. Child­hood was a se­ries of tor­ments. Their fa­ther un­der­mined them, he threw things at them, and he in­sulted them. He was vile to his wife. As an el­derly man, he con­tin­ues to be the epit­ome of a smug nar­cis­sist, un­able to ut­ter a sin­gle kind word. Now in their for­ties, the sib­lings are not ex­actly the fail­ures they be­lieve them­selves to be, but all are strug­gling in some way and find hap­pi­ness elu­sive. Mo, an ac­tor, is no longer get­ting juicy roles be­cause of his ad­vanc­ing age and his re­li­gion; in the name of ca­reer re­sus­ci­ta­tion, he, his wife Pan­dora, and their five sons have starred for sev­eral sea­sons in a re­al­ity tele­vi­sion show about their lives. Edith, nick­named This­tle, is an ethics pro­fes­sor who makes wildly aw­ful choices in her love life and is not sure she can go through with mur­der. Ja­cob, a play­wright, lives with his boyfriend, Di­et­rich, in Ber­lin — which is a prob­lem for Mo and Ju­lian, nei­ther of whom can fathom how a Jew can love a Ger­man. Levin­son’s writ­ing is witty and sharp, with so lit­tle ex­po­si­tion that the reader must go on faith that all will be re­vealed in due time. We see each char­ac­ter through the eyes of the peo­ple who know them best and osten­si­bly love them the most. We learn every­one’s pec­ca­dil­loes and predilec­tions, their old hurts and cur­rent shames, and we un­der­stand how their fam­ily feels about those same is­sues. There are very few se­crets be­tween the Ja­cob­sons, and those that ex­ist come out in the book. Read­ers for whom this sort of fam­ily is the stuff of fic­tion will read Tell Me How This Ends Well as a dark com­edy. Oth­ers will see a stark and re­al­is­tic de­pic­tion of child and spousal abuse that can only be made palat­able with the use of gal­lows hu­mor. Brothers and sis­ter en­vi­sion nu­mer­ous sit­u­a­tions in which they could kill their fa­ther, vac­il­lat­ing be­tween want­ing him to suf­fer and want­ing to get it over with quickly.

In his vi­sion of the not-too-dis­tant fu­ture, Levin­son ne­glects to men­tion how other op­pressed groups are far­ing. We learn noth­ing about the cur­rent state of po­lice bru­tal­ity against peo­ple of color or what is hap­pen­ing with the U.S. Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion. But this is a small miss­ing piece of the set­ting, not the story, which is about the con­stant guilt and fear the adult Ja­cob­son chil­dren carry. Ju­lian, seem­ingly with mal­ice afore­thought, raised them to be­lieve that the world was out to get them and that when it did, they would de­serve it and it would be their fault. Now, all they want is for their mother, who is ter­mi­nally ill, to have a few peace­ful months with­out him at the end of her life. They are com­mit­ting this crime for her — or at least that’s what they tell them­selves.

— Jen­nifer Levin

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