by Adam Levin
McSweeney’s, 1030 pages, $29
Using the kind of comprehensive, pick-a-fight judgments that characterized American literary criticism in a bolder, fiercer era, Leslie Fiedler once called the nation’s classic literature “a literature of horror for boys.” Fiedler wasn’t lamenting a failing of the American literary tradition so much as identifying the conditions that enabled a series of major writers to explore the darker dimensions of American experience in morally serious terms. In writing “horror for boys,” writers like Twain, Melville, and Faulkner, and more recent novelists like Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, and Junot Diaz, can delve into difficult and complex situations with a combination of youthful innocence and adventurous energy that simultaneously invests their characters’ fraught experiences with the safety of the comic and the significance of the moral.
Fielder’s phrase has been on my mind for months now, months I’ve spent reading The Instructions, an outsized first novel by Adam Levin. The book spends a thousand pages detailing four days in the life of Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, a ten-year old Jewish-American kid and Torah scholar-prodigy who has notions he might be the Messiah and ambitions to figure it out by gathering disciples and waging a holy war at his junior high school outside Chicago.
By way of this premise, Levin has written a novel that takes Judaism seriously, as an active, demanding source of transcendent purpose for his protagonist, a source that places Gurion in meaningful relation to God and situates his intense young life in a divinely framed drama of revelation and response, sin and redemption. This drama is played out in a contemporary American setting where brutalizing isolation, bureaucratic blather, and prescription drugs make up the public school system’s response to a boy who disrupts his classes with a combination of aggressive misbehavior and unapologetically religious fervor.
The Instructions is immediately distinguishable from the more familiar phenomenon of contemporary literary fiction concerned with religiously informed ethnic experience, whether particularized in Jewish or Irish or Cuban or Indian or Lower Moldovan forms, in which the exploration of personal and group identity constitutes the hyphenated-writer’s first principles, while religion occupies an assiduously un-theological secondary role as a rich if inert source to be drawn on for scenic texturing and interpersonal tensions, political tinder and character types, grave historical event and stylized evocation. Levin strives for something more than a secular-morality tale of recipe cards and evil clerics, memory wounds and wise grandmothers. In the way he goes about this, he is joining the great tradition of American fiction that Fielder identified: exploring meaningful questions through the adventures of juvenile delinquents.
Though this is a novel in which Scripture and Judaic theology figure as more than mere accent notes—there are many intelligent meditations, if often in youthful slang and email strings, about biblical figures and episodes and the nature of God, man, and their relation—it is not an orthodox-minded one. In an invocatory prayer on the first page, Gurion praises God directly because, among other apparent signs of His greatness, “You know that Your mistakes, though a part of You, are nonetheless mistakes, [which], though Yours, are ours to repair.”
The blithely inverted account of God, man, and error isn’t a smug setup for a sacrilegious ode to the individual along the lines of Joyce’s opening to Ulysses, but preparation for entering an imagined world through a voice and consciousness for whom God, prayer, and human purpose are vitally interconnected, if idiosyncratically, even childishly so.
We learn early on in the novel that Gurion’s religious zeal, which manifests itself in both brilliant Torah scholarship and violent misbehavior, inspires exasperation, unease, and fear from the authorities at the yeshivas from which he’s been expelled, though not before winning admirers amongst the student body. His latest stop is Aptaskisic Junior High School, where he, alongside other wayward youths that soon come under his sway, is assigned to a detention program called “The Cage,” administered by a big, bad, one-handed Australian named Botha.
A succession of melodramatic alliances and conflicts (this is, after all, junior high) follow, involving Gurion’s encounters with students, teachers, rabbis, and also his parents: his father, a Jewish civil rights lawyer who defends neo-Nazis, and his mother, an ex-I.D.F. soldier of part-Ethiopian extraction. Their thorough secularization is provocatively rendered as an underlying catalyst for their son’s religious zeal. In fact, given his sense of the religious emptiness of the descriptor, Gurion refuses to be called Jewish, but instead “identifies himself as an Israelite.” We learn as much from an undergraduate psychology major’s assessment of the boy—an assessment that, in Levin’s satirical handling, is chock-full of acronymic diagnoses and thick theorizing about ethnic identity and interpersonal skills but altogether incapable of ascribing any meaning to Gurion’s religiousness except as evidence of his psychological and social dysfunctions.
To be sure, Gurion is psychologically and socially dysfunctional, never mind delusional and prone to manipulation and violence, but he’s also just a ten-year-old kid at odds with the world around him who, while mixed up in all kinds of difficulties at school, is also witnessing the gradual breakdown of his parents’ marriage. A lesser writer would use religion to explain all of this away; Levin takes Gurion seriously, which means taking his faith seriously, which he’s able to do without fear of overwhelming gravity or drenching sincerity because he’s dealing with a ten-year-old hell-raiser-cum-wannabe-Messiah.
Levin’s is a worthy effort to take his young protagonist’s faith seriously, but The Instructions is, alas, in all-too-standard ways, a postmodern fiction. It features multiple narrative frames, self-referential gamesmanship (we’re reading a novel called The Instructions about a sacred text written by Gurion that’s called, yep, The Instructions), all kinds of dizzying diagrams and assorted digitalia, zigzag moves between Scripture and slang, flabby pop culture references cut through with serious cultural criticism, distended time sequences where dozens upon dozens of pages are taken to plot out a dozen minutes of action, a Philip Roth cameo appearance, and endless whirligig pre-teen wordplay. As is more often than not the case with oversized books of such willful, even boastful motleyness, they’re impressive to behold but not necessarily enjoyable to read.
Indeed, no American writer since Melville has been consistently entertaining and engaging for hundreds upon hundreds of pages. In fact, an early Philip Roth story, “The Conversion of the Jews” (1959), offers a far more cogent representation of the very same thing driving this novel: an American Jewish schoolboy’s confused and disruptive interest in religion, which culminates in events whose moral meanings are sublimated into a combination of the comic, the violent, and the absurd.
Only in short stretches, of which there are certainly many, are Levin’s renderings as affecting, funny, and incisive as Roth’s. Levin is very good, for example, on the hollowing out and simultaneous fetishization of Jewishness by identity mercenaries and also on the ironies and injustices of junior high, as when he shows in an extended pep rally scene that religious, even messianic, longings are fine in the American public school system, even encouraged, as long as they’re directed towards sports teams, hot girls, and the popular kids.
The pep rally occasions the novel’s climactic event, “the Gurionic war.” Acting out of a fused-together combination of religious self-importance and social ressentiment, Gurion and his cohort of disaffected isolation-cases-turned-zealous-disciples take over his school in a bloody, fatal campaign. Eventually, and in patently ridiculous ways, Gurion escapes but only, of course, as a crowning prelude. The novel’s closing pages draw from two archetypal sources, one literary, the other biblical. Gurion lights out for new territory, Huck Finn style, at the end of the book, which, for this self-identified Israelite, can mean only a journey from exile into the Promised Land. God help the Israeli school system.
Randy Boyagoda is a professor of American Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto and author of the novel Beggar’s Feast (Penguin Canada). He is writing a biography of Richard John Neuhaus.