'Tell Me How This Ends Well': Family dysfunction on the grand scale
April 16, 2017 12:00 AM
David Samuel Levinson.
By Carlo Wolff
Julian Jacobson is so horrible, Don Rickles would have had a hard time taking him down. A doctor who has meanly sired two boys and a girl, Julian ostensibly takes care of Roz, his slowly dying wife. Moses, Jacob and Edith — she also goes by Thistle — love their mother, but, with varying intensity, want to kill their father. Family dysfunction on the grand scale is the focus of David Samuel Levinson’s flawed but largely successful novel “Tell Me How This Ends Well.”
"TELL ME HOW THIS ENDS WELL"
By David Samuel Levinson Hogarth ($27).
Set in Los Angeles in 2022, Mr. Levinson’s novel situates the Jacobsons in a megalopolis rife with anti-Semitic attacks, largely because Israel no longer exists. It was annihilated by its traditional Middle Eastern enemies, triggering a refugee crisis the United States in particular is challenged to handle.
Mr. Levinson’s book, part social commentary, part sitcom, is topical and timely. And even if its set-up can seem far-fetched, the intertwined worlds of family and the larger community are credible. In addition, even when the story lags — Mr. Levinson occasionally launches dead-end subplots — he is pretty funny, and acutely aware of the reality television aspect of his plot.
Los Angeles — and show business — are major characters. Mo Jacobson is a hunky actor just bubbling under celebrity, and his kid brother, Jacob, perhaps the most interesting figure (and likely a stand-in for Mr. Levinson himself), is a playwright on the verge. The whole family developed a reality television show that was, to put it mildly, polarizing. Their actual circumstances and entertainment profile are certainly fodder for ethics professor Thistle, who, of course, is under a cloud at Emory University for allegedly having sex with a student.
To thicken the mix and layer the irony, Mr. Levinson sets the action during Passover, when Mo has invited the whole family to share in the holiday with his wife, Pandora, their triplets and twins. What promises to be a celebration rapidly turns dark as the children begin to suspect that Julian, who hankers after Roz’s family fortune, is slowly killing her.
The tension, of course, is about who will kill Julian, an inexplicably nasty man who — spoiler alert, the only one — compromises his wife’s health even as he “cares” for her. (To give away more would cheat the reader.)
Ultimately, the siblings mature during this fraught Passover, Jacob in particular. He’s come from Berlin, where he lives with Dietrich, a blond German known for his malapropisms and his kindness. Germany becomes a kind of beacon in the upside-down world the Jacobsons badly want right side up. Early on, Jacob doubts Dietrich’s love, particularly after he’s met Dietrich’s family and endured remarks that might be considered racist. Here’s some crucial dialogue:
“My country doesn’t have the history yours does,” Jacob pointed out. “My country didn’t exterminate millions of people based on a single idea from a megalomaniac. But yours did. Your grandparents were party members. Are you trying to tell me that you don’t have a single anti-Semitic cell in your body?”
“Why are you so terrified of being hated?”
“I’m not terrified of being hated. I’m terrified that you don’t dislike the right people.”
While the family machinations dominate — Jacob and Mo bicker as Edith tries to soothe — other, graver concerns provide a troubling undercurrent, making “Tell Me How This Ends Well” an uneasy, if curiously edifying, read. Not only is there a paucity of love in this family and in society at large, there are other shortages, symbolized by the state of California making a crime of stealing water:
“There wasn’t enough water for the state, the population of which had reached a staggering forty-one million people, according to the last census, huge numbers of them displaced Israelis, who found the climate and terrain familiar,” Moses muses as he drives his kids to a private Jewish day school in Agoura Hills.
For David Samuel Levinson, the world the Jacobsons occupy is indeed a troubled paradise, complete with peacocks. Each family member deals with it in a unique way, leading to an unexpectedly touching outcome. Consider this shtick with depth.
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