The Instructions is narrated by Gurion Maccabee, a Jewish 10-year-old in the Chicago suburbs equally obsessed with his social status and his responsibilities to God. Expelled from three elementary schools in the past year, Gurion has landed in the behavior-disorders program at Aptakisic Junior High, known as “The Cage,” where problem students are kept out of class in continual lockdown for quiet study halls controlled by tyrannical Australian Mr. Botha. The varsity basketball players and their fan club, the Main Hall Shovers, control the halls at Aptakisic, but Gurion dreams of leading a revolt among his fellow misfits, while constantly getting sidetracked by his big questions: Why does he keep getting into fights in spite of proclaiming himself a man of peace? What is the correct way to protest the rules of the Cage? And how can he reconcile Talmudic edicts against intermarriage with his real, Gentile crush, June Watermark? These concerns come to a head the same week Gurion’s trial-lawyer father awaits the verdict for the Nazi he’s defending, and the pop teen sensation Boystar prepares to shoot a music video at Aptakisic, while Gurion attempts to incite his Jewish classmates to arm themselves with penny guns against a potential future war.
Apart from documents set between chapters, like an excruciating write-up of one of Gurion’s meetings with his social worker, or the e-mails between his rabbi and Aptakisic’s principal, Gurion provides the lens through which readers see the Cage, and his obsessions make him overwhelming company. While working on the magnum opus he calls his “scripture,” he records every passed note and playground squabble, and The Instructions’ florid overexplication of each gesture and comment harmonizes with his often-exhilarating view. It’s a tribute to his megalomania—but a disadvantage to the narrative—that even at this length, fascinating characters (like Gurion’s fiercely protective, IDF-trained mother) stay underwritten.
Levin grants his protagonist far too many liberties in the unwinding of his self-created fantasy, whose inevitable destruction is written into Gurion’s first locker-room brawl. The Instructions bears the mark of Infinite Jest in its maximalist style, the group dynamics of the Cage, and the too-preoccupied hero who attempts to order his universe; like David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece, Instructions falls into digressions, but with a poignancy that steals over the hyperverbal frenzy without warning. “Look at Holden Caulfield—you don’t wanna wind up like him, do you?” a star basketball player asks the brighter, more articulate Gurion. It’s The Instructions’ most direct reference to its deserved place in the lineage among other books about bright misfits.