If there were a shade of comedy darker than black, David Samuel Levinson’s novel Tell Me How This Ends Well would define it. The story of an ill-conceived murder plot hatched by three adult children to dispatch their psychologically abusive father, it’s a devilishly funny and yet painfully honest dissection of one Jewish family’s angst, set against the backdrop of a terrifying near-future America in which anti-Semitism has emerged with renewed vengeance.
On an April weekend in 2022, the Jacobson family gathers at the San Fernando Valley home of Moses Orenstein-Jacobson, a B-movie actor and the star of a cancelled reality show that also featured his wife and their five sons. They’re joined by his sister Edith and, from Berlin, his brother Jacob and Jacob’s German partner, Dietrich.
Over the course of the weekend, the Jacobson siblings—in the presence of their mother, Roz, the victim of a terminal lung disease—rehearse their lifelong litany of grievances against their “mean, viperous, and unpredictable” father, Julian, a man with an uncanny knack for seeking out and exploiting each child’s point of maximum emotional vulnerability. Julian’s verbal cruelty, past and present, easily qualifies him for membership in any hall of fame of literary villainy. The Jacobsons’ murderous scheme, climaxing on the evening of a televised Passover Seder at Moses’ home, unfolds with the lack of professionalism and bizarre humor one would expect from such a profoundly damaged trio.
Levinson’s vividly imagined America is home to some 4 million Israeli refugees, an influx of new immigrants that sparks a wave of anti-Jewish terror that includes suicide bombings on the Los Angeles freeways and attacks on Jewish day schools. The hostile environment, which seems eerily plausible, only exacerbates the Jacobson family’s insecurity, heightening the tension that surrounds their criminal designs.
Tell Me How This Ends Well takes the familiar tropes of family conflict and flashes them in a funhouse mirror. Yet somehow, they emerge from that process of distortion ever more clearly reflected in our own minds.