Family and fighting

A futurist plot envisions an isolationist US president who lets Israel be destroyed.

American and Israeli flags (photo credit: REUTERS)
American and Israeli flags
(photo credit: REUTERS)
David Samuel Levinson writes with searing intensity while chronicling the familial dysfunction that permeates the Jacobson family – who are plagued by grudges that have grown more toxic with time. Yet, he falters when he tries to embellish his heartfelt narrative with an exaggerated plot that feels phony and distracts us from his compelling family story.
Tell Me How This Ends Well takes place in Los Angeles in 2022. America has been victimized by an isolationist America-first president who has allowed Israel to be destroyed by refusing to come to its aid.
The president has now allowed some displaced Israelis to come to the United States to find sanctuary, and this has activated a wave of virulent antisemitism.
The Jacobson family, a bunch of unhappy assimilationist Jews, are gathering to celebrate Passover. The three adult children have hatched an outlandish plan to murder their father, who they believe has destroyed their lives, including the life of their beloved mother who now is dying and only has a few months left to live.
The father is and has always been an intolerable man; prone to rage and unconscionable outbursts of emotional abuse.
The children believe his death will somehow give their mother and themselves some semblance of peace and justice.
Neither of these story lines; about Israel’s destruction, or the planned murder of their father, have any ring of authenticity and distract from the moving personal dramas each child describes in separate chapters about the struggles of growing up in such a horrendous environment.
It seems as though Levinson has simply added them on top of his other stories to shock and awe us and the result is disconcerting.
What isn’t upsetting is Levinson’s acute perceptions about the traumas that can invade family life and carry lingering effects long into adulthood.
The eldest son, Mo, is married to a gorgeous California girl and is the father of five, but his marriage is failing and his work as a Hollywood actor is drying up.
Jacob is gay and has been living nervously with his German lover Dietrich for more than three years, always filled with fears Dietrich will leave him. Edith is divorced and childless and an accomplished academic, but struggles with eating disorders.
She is plagued by a recurrent memory of her father teasing her about her weight. She remembers sitting for a family portrait and listening to her father tell the photographer he may have to struggle to fit her in the picture. Jacob recalls how his father would continually tease him about his passive and bookish nature. Only Mo seemed to be able to escape his father’s assaults.
He found refuge with a close friend nearby and was rarely home.
Jacob has decided to bring his lover Dietrich to Passover in order to test their relationship. He knew his chaotic family might be the final straw for Dietrich, and he wanted to see if he was really in it for the long haul.
“For there had been others, a litany of failures, though Jacob had known enough never to introduce any of them around, as he suspected it wouldn’t matter anyway, because none of them had stayed long enough to take any real hold or to have any real effect on his life. Besides, no one in his family besides Edith took any true interest in Jacob’s romantic life, which caused much friction and made him feel invisible, especially when they all used to gather to celebrate this or that Jewish holiday…”
All three Jacobson children are bewildered by their father’s meanness. Jacob tries to explain it to his siblings, claiming: “You keep trying to come up with reasons for why he was the way he was... you still contend that he could have been different. But he was born a black hole. He hid out in the dark, where no one knew where to look for him.”
The reader can’t help but notice elements of Levinson in his characterization of Jacob. Both Levinson and his character Jacob are gay men plagued by a sense of unease in the world; a perpetual feeling of displacement. Levinson has lived in many different places, but seems always in search of a permanent home. He was born in Texas, where he was bullied at school for his Jewish appearance and his clumsiness at sports. He was raised Orthodox, but his family switched to a Conservative synagogue when he was still quite young. Perhaps most tellingly, Levinson, like his character Jacob, has admitted in interviews that he often felt unseen by those he loved as a child; a feeling that still seems to haunt him.
He has said in interviews: “I really think what I wanted was to be heard. I grew up in a family where I wasn’t heard.” We hear that angst and longing in many of his finely chiseled characters. He is an adept chronicler of the frailty of human relationships, but needs to learn to leave the theatrics out.