A middle-school war, waged with chutzpah

By Stephen Lowman
Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Adam Levin is definitely not a "yossarian." That's what the cool kids at the center of his debut novel call a coward - a clever nod to the main character in "Catch-22." This gutsy first-time novelist marks his arrival with a 1,000-page story about a 10-year-old boy who may be the messiah.

"The Instructions" chronicles four days in the life of Gurion Maccabee, who attends Aptakisic Junior High in the suburbs of Chicago. He has the brains of a Mensa member and the faith of a Torah scholar. His intellectual gifts allowed him to skip several grades, but he's also prone to violent outbursts, which is why he's been expelled from three previous middle schools. Both revered and feared at Aptakisic, Gurion is in command of a band of troublemakers who break stuff and get into fights. Those locker-room skirmishes quickly devolve into a bloody crusade when Gurion and his followers take the school hostage during a pep rally for the basketball team. For 200 pages he wages a deadly war against teachers, bullies, police officers and anti-Semites. Dubbed "the Guronic War," the battle becomes a metaphor for the biblical struggle of the Jewish people. Talk about chutzpah!

There's a lot to like in "The Instructions": the black humor, the midrashic arguments, the fully realized world of Aptakisic Junior High. Above all, in this comic novel Levin manages to write eloquently about the search for a modern Jewish identity - especially in the arguments he has with his father, a lawyer who is defending a neo-Nazi's right to free speech, and his mother, who descends from a lost tribe of Israel found in Ethiopia.

But there are problems. Many of the characters have a contrived charm that renders them more cartoonish than human. There's Scott Mookus, who doesn't write the letter "e": "He'd pronounce them when he spoke, but couldn't see them written, so he'd leave blanks for them when he wrote. It is fin sinc you can assum th sound of th m." There's Eliyahu, a Hasid from New York, who speaks only abstrusely: "I came from Israel, I came from Brooklyn, I came from the other side of this tree stump." Preciousness abounds. Gurion thinks the scent of his girlfriend's hair is like "a hammock swaying in slomo between telephone poles in the poppyfield from 'The Wizard of Oz.' " Huh?

"The Instructions" has been compared to David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest." There's the enormous size, of course, but also the mix of high- and lowbrow, the footnotes and the extensive digressions. And boy, does Levin fill the text with a tedious amount of information, dialogue and self-indulgent narrative detours. The story's four days feel like a lifetime. I suspect that, as with "Infinite Jest," far more people will buy "The Instructions" than actually read it, much less finish it.

Lowman is on the Book World staff.

the instructions

By Adam Levin

McSweeney's. 1,030 pp. $29

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