Joseph Michael Owens: The Last Book I Loved, The Instructions


I flew to Chicago for a single night in October, just to hear Adam Levin read from the last book I truly loved, The Rumpus’ own Book Club pick, The Instructions.

At the time of Levin’s Chicago reading, I was nearly 900 pages into The Instructions (out of the novel’s 1,030 total), which made me fairly confident I wouldn’t hear any spoilers.  Though, to be honest, at only 50 pages in, I could already tell that I was experiencing something special.

I issued a challenge to anyone who thought I’d been overpraising this book: “Pick it up and read five pages, then just try not to read another five and another five after that.” Ostensibly, I challenged them to not read the next five pages 206 times; and, when they got to the end, I challenged them not to feel like they’d just experienced something wholly unique and unprecedented.

So far, four literary friends and colleagues have taken me up on the challenge, and not a single one of them has yet to put it down after any segments of five pages.  One finished the book in eight days from the time he started it.  The book is simply un-put-down-able.

Being that this is a gushing-filled essay rather than a truly objective, down-the-middle book review, there will be almost nothing negative written by me. There’s simply nothing, coming from a purely personal-taste-oriented perspective, that I can say I disliked about this book.  It’s a literary achievement by any sense of the definition.

When I was originally asked how to describe the book, before I was able to get a firm grasp on everything that was going on in The Instructions, I told people that it was kind of like the love-child between A Clockwork Orange and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  I saw Gurion Maccabee, Levin’s highly intelligent and fairly violent young protagonist, as equal parts Alex from Burgess’ novel about a bit of “the old ultra-violence” and Safran Foer’s utterly inquisitive and impossibly adorable Oskar Schell.  When asked for television comparisons, I said, “If Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was Grey’s Anatomy, then The Instructions was more like House M.D.”

However, I realized that any and all comparisons were moot, in the sense that none of them truly expressed the complexity and originality of Levin’s opus, which defies comparison because it, instead, creates comparison in and of its singularity.  Note that this also happens to be his debut novel — a fact that can’t help but make me want to quit writing and become a substance abuser; but, of course, only in the best and most loving way possible.  While nods to Infinite Jest (my favorite novel of all time) are flattering and appear to make sense initially, such comparisons are only scratching at the crust of what The Instructions has to offer on its own.  The Instructions is not the next Infinite Jest; it is the first The Instructions.  Down the road, books will be drawing comparisons between themselves and Levin’s masterpiece — yes, I said the “mp” word, as such a designation is completely deserved.

Gurion and his gang (for lack of a better term), The Side of Damage, including his best friends Vincie Portite and Benji Nakamook are not the clean cut, squeaky clean heroes readers are used to, nor are they the prototypical anti-heroes either.  They are fully fleshed out and believable characters of incredible depth and personality.  You will believe these 10- and 11-year-old kids are really this smart; you will believe Gurion is in love with Eliza June Watermark so passionately it makes your heart hurt, you willbelieve that Benji Nakamook might just possibly be the toughest character to come along in fiction since Goliath of Gath, and would die out of sheer loyalty to Gurion; you will believe that Bam Slokum really is Goliath of Gath or even the serpent with the persuasive tongue in the Garden of Eden.  Most of all, you will believe that The Instructions is incredible and that Adam Levin is the real deal.

Many more words at this juncture simply feel superfluous to me.  In the end, I make the same challenge to anyone who reads this essay: I challenge you to finish The Instructions and say you simply finished reading a book rather than experiencing a genuinely singular event.  You’ll feel exhausted, you’ll feel emotionally depleted, but, ultimately, and most importantly, you’ll feel completely satisfied.

Joseph Michael Owens has written for PANK Magazine, The Rumpus, The Houston Literary Review, and for Grey Sparrow Journal, where he is a regular contributor to its “Man on Campus” section and as well as a technical editor. Additionally, his short story “We Always Trust Each Other, Except for When We Don’t” was nominated for Dzanc Books‘ Best of the Web 2011 anthology. Joseph also manages the website Category Thirteen, dedicated primarily to the hectic and haptic process of writing. Joe lives in Omaha with five dogs and one wife. More from this author →