The End of the Jews
By Adam Mansbach
Spiegel & Grau, 310 pp., $23.95
It's 1935 in a poor Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx, and 15-year-old Tristan Brodsky is his family's hope. His siblings work menial jobs to buy him more time to study. He has a full scholarship to City College, the beginning, his mother hopes, of a road that will end in law or medicine. But Tristan has other ideas. He wants to be a novelist - an ambition sealed during his riotous first literature "class," which the stylish professor Pendergast decides to hold in a nightclub. Over the course of that evening Tristan manages to crash a house party in Harlem, barely escape getting murdered, learn his liquor limit, and strike up what will turn out to be a lifelong friendship with a black jazz drummer. Pendergast's advice at the end of this chaotic night? "Find someplace quiet and empty your mind into a notebook." It's the beginning of a brilliant, erratic career that will earn Tristan critical praise, financial success, and the baffled fury of American Jews.
Fifty years later Tristan's teenage grandson and namesake is a hip-hop expert making a name for himself as a graffiti artist and swiftly absorbing the elder Tristan's artistic ethos: Do what you have to do, and if you break a few hearts or a few laws, that's all part of getting the job done.
The two Tristans anchor "The End of the Jews," a beautiful, funny, heartbreaking book that manages to take on art, love, identity, class anxiety, being Jewish, and wishing you were black. Very few writers could have attempted all this without farcical results. Adam Mansbach succeeds, brilliantly.
In "The End of the Jews," less a novel than a series of episodes that dart back and forth chronologically and geographically, Mansbach displays a seemingly magical gift for writing about any place or milieu. He takes us from 1930s New York to late-'80s Prague, through the bitchy world of New York publishing to the backstage lives of jazz musicians, and almost never strikes a false note. And when he does, when a scene is not quite believable or a line of dialogue a little less than perfect, it's all right; you're caring too much about his characters to mind.
One of the perils of fiction of this scope is that it can degenerate into faux social history and the characters become window dressing for the sweep of events. Mansbach is too good for that, his people too real in all their pain and energy and weakness. The elder Tristan carries the single-minded ferocity that enabled him to survive the streets of the Bronx into his work and his marriage, with sometimes brutal results. The younger Tristan reels at the all-too-predictable mockery hurled his way when he, a Jewish guy from Connecticut, writes a hip-hop novel with mainly black characters and stages a literary comeback by mining his unsuspecting family for material. The characters in "The End of the Jews" are often unsympathetic and occasionally stupid, but they always matter.
At this point you may think I've given away too much plot, but in terms of mere events there's far more to the book than I've revealed. In any case, no plot summary could ever convey the emotional power of this novel, a meditation on identity, on family, and on art, and what it can cost the people who love the artist. "The End of the Jews" is an intense, painful, poignant book.
Kevin O'Kelly is a regular reviewer for the Globe. His blog is at notes andcomments1.blogspot.com.