Adam Levin is fearless. In an era of 140-character tweets and notoriously short attention spans, Levin, a lifelong Chicagoan, has had the audacity to write a 1,030-page novel called The Instructions, coming this fall from Dave Eggers’s clever publishing house, McSweeney’s ($29).
What’s more, the novel, which essentially spans four days in November 2006, features a precocious ten-year-old protagonist who may or may not be the Messiah—though the book’s awe-ful climax (culminating with the so-called 11/17 Miracle, not to be revealed here) certainly tilts that discussion toward the affirmative.
Levin, 33, began writing The Instructions nine years ago while working toward an M. F. A. in creative writing at Syracuse University. “I started writing about this kid I went to junior high with,” says Levin over coffee at Atomix, the Ukrainian Village coffee shop near his apartment. “He stayed in a motel and smelled like cigars. I don’t know if the other kids made fun of him because they knew he was poor or just because he was different or weird, but in my head, I was like, I want to write about this kid. And then the book rapidly became this other thing.”
The boy Levin knew from junior high morphed into the novel’s protagonist, Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, a brilliant and charismatic Torah scholar who, as Levin puts it, “likes kicking ass and taking names.” Much of the story—supposedly a work of scripture written by Gurion in 2013—takes place at Aptakisic Junior High School, which, given its location and other fictional particulars, doesn’t exactly resemble the school with that same name in Buffalo Grove, where Levin spent his childhood. “The reality of the book is not ours,” he says, dismissing any comparison between him and his rebellious hero.
And what about the novel’s Tolstoyan heft? “Obviously I didn’t worry about that too much,” says Levin. “Certainly there are a lot of people who don’t read. You don’t write novels for those people—though I would like it if [they said]: ’The one novel I will read in my life: Adam Levin’s The Instructions.’”
Photograph: Taylor Castle; Assistant: Ace Ujimori