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Fall Books: Pogromface

From The Instructions by Adam Levin



The narrator, central character, and putative author of Adam Levin's The Instructions is Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, a precocious, charismatic, violent boy whose friends and followers refer to him, respectfully, as Rabbi. In November 2006, when the events of Levin's 1,030-page debut novel take place, Gurion is a ten-year-old seventh grader attending Aptakisic Junior High, in the northwest suburb of Buffalo Grove. He's supposed to be restricted to an in-school program for incorrigibles called CAGE, but in the following passage he's managed to get hold of a hall pass.

Levin teaches creative writing at Roosevelt University and the School of the Art Institute. The term Adonai, used below, is a Hebrew honorific for God.

A hall-pass was the only thing that would prevent thinking in a guard if they saw you in the hall and it wasn't lunch or a passing-period; even if you were throwing up or bleeding out of the head, they would send you to the Office if you didn't have one. The guards were like fingers, like robots. Like the Angel of Death that spread the tenth plague in Egypt. God sent it to kill the first-born sons of Egyptians so that the Israelites would be freed from bondage, but the Israelites still had to put sheep's blood on their doors so that the angel would pass over their houses. If there was no sheep's blood on the door, the angel would kill your first-born son even if you were an Israelite because even though it was one of God's fingers, it was still just a finger, and a finger's just a robot, and all the robot knew was to kill firstborns where there isn't sheep's blood. . . .

Floyd the Chewer was the guard of the side entrance. When Floyd was young, he played a season of football for the Chicago Bears. He got cut fast and now he wore a Bears iron-on next to the security patch on his shirt and carried a plastic cheering cone from Notre Dame, where he went to college. The cone had a loop of skinny rope laced through a bracket near its mouth-hole and was attached to Floyd's wrist at all times. Jelly Rothstein's sister Ruth had interviewed Floyd in the "Pow-Wow" section of the Aptakisic News that October. She asked him why he always talked to students through the cone, and Floyd told her he hoped to one day get a job in the crowd-control profession and that the cone helped him practice. "Like how you got a wiffle-bat for wiffleball to practice baseball," he said, "my cheering cone is like a wiffle-megaphone for Aptakisic, but to practice for a riot." Then Ruth asked him if he minded that people called him the Chewer, and Floyd said that the only thing he loved more than being called the Chewer was the flavor of the cubes of the tasty grape gum he always kept packed in his cheek. But Floyd was a robot and a liar. If you called him the Chewer he'd give you the finger. It was against the rules, so he'd scratch his nose with it, or his chin. And his dream of crowd-control masked another dream: spit-control. Floyd talked through the cone because he couldn't manage his saliva. He sprayed whenever he made p and b sounds. You could hear the spit buzz the cone's plastic when it slapped against the insides. You could see it drip fakegrape purple out the widehole when the cone was dangling off his wrist and you were following him to the Office after he just finished yelling at you for a while.

But I didn't need to see Floyd, anyway. I didn't need to go past the side entrance to get to my locker. I needed to go past the front entrance, and that was guarded by Jerry the Deaf Sentinel, who wasn't deaf, but never listened. He just sat on a stool in a glass booth and kept a pencil he didn't use in the space between his head and his hat-band. I disliked Jerry a fraction less than I disliked Floyd, but it wasn't so easy to figure out why.

Both of them had a condition my mom taught me to recognize as the pogromface = their faces expressed whatever emotion the most conspicuously powerful guy in the room was expressing, and this expression would remain on their faces until another conspicuously powerful guy entered the room feeling a different emotion than the first. My mother's beliefs about the pogromfaced, though, differed from mine, however slightly. Whereas she thought them cowards filled with bloodlust, and useful only for the commission of atrocities, I, while I also thought of them as cowards, believed the pogromfaced empty of lust, available to accomplish any number of objectives at which men in power might choose to aim them. Still, we both agreed you couldn't pogrom without them. But that isn't to say they'd be able to execute pogroms on their own: though often incited, they never incited. And it isn't to say they were all the same, either—at least not exactly. The distinction, for example, between even the first man to brick a shop window and the second—or the distinction between either of them and the ones who, having grown bored with bricks, make Molotov cocktails; let alone that between any of the above and the ones who impede, however briefly, their friends' ignitions of the Molotov cocktails in order to prevent the marring of the sheen of the loot not yet taken—is no doubt relevant to Adonai, for all distinctions are relevant to Adonai, minute as they may seem, even if their relevance is totally lost on me and my mother, or any other human being. And when I looked at Floyd I could see him in Ukraine, stuffing fish into the flies of a murdered fishmonger's pants, and when I looked at Jerry I could see him right beside Floyd, stuffing fish into the mouth of the same murdered fishmonger, and I didn't know which deed was worse, though one of them surely had to be worse, at least by a fraction, but I did know I disliked Jerry a fraction less than I disliked Floyd, and I was all but certain that neither of them had ever been to Ukraine. So this is what I finally decided: It's better to be able to write something down than it is to amplify your spitty voice = if you have to have a prop, better a pencil than a Notre Dame cheering cone. And Floyd had the cheering cone, and Jerry the pencil. And that is why I disliked Jerry a little bit less.

I showed him my pass and said, This is my sheep's blood.

Jerry nodded. The nod dispatched me.   

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