Adam Levin’s New Jewish Epic


If The Anarchist’s Cookbook provided recipes for potent literature, Adam Levin’s The Instructions would be in there, a feast for the Che Guevara shirt–wearing, pissy, lovestruck kid in all of us. Yet Levin’s massive novel—his first, on which he spent around a decade working—is assembled with stock-shelf ingredients.

Among them: the rebellion parable of Animal Farm, with after-school detention monitors replacing Orwell’s dictatorial barnyard traif. Fistfuls of Robert Cormier’s bittersweet Chocolate War dystopia and the poetic pidgin of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. Dashes of Philip Roth and pinches of Vonnegut, both of whose works are directly referenced. The entire thing is finished with a glaze of Joseph Campbell and served by Dave Eggers (published by McSweeney’s, it basically is). Essential to The Instructions’ success is the careful moderation Levin took with his influences. They’re not distracting.

The novel is a “scripture” written by the Judaism-obsessed, prodigal, possibly messianic 10-year-old Gurion Maccabee, who has skipped almost as many grades as the schools he’s been kicked out of for fighting. Gurion, waiting to see his principal after yet another fight, meets and falls in love with a pretty classmate. It’s the first step of a hysterical, heartfelt journey of self-discovery, perpetually foreshadowed by an inevitable climax: the adolescent-lead revolution against the Powers That Be (mainly, the public school system). Each half of The Instructions is devoted to two different days, with the occasional flashback or historical aside, the writing catching the way kids slowly watch the world tick forward. Yet the thousand-page youth-in-revolt epic flies by.

The result? A book that moves beyond completely transparent influences to reach its own distinct, new, great height. Finding out whether or not Gurion is the messiah pales to watching Levin earn him his rightful place alongside Holden Caulfield, Harry Potter, Pony Boy, and every other classically young, angry character who’s fought to change his or her world, whether or not they succeeded.