Hogarth/Random House, 404 pages
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.