Literary greatness is an enormous, relationship-wrecking concern among the lead characters of Adam Mansbach’s third novel, The End of the Jews, a book that gets tantalizingly close to greatness itself. The story’s patriarch, Tristan Brodsky, is a closed-off genius who launched his career by celebrating the Depression-era East Bronx shtetl, then sabotaged it in novels like Manacles, a tale of Jewish slave-hunters. The emotional damage his books created is passed down to his grandson, Tris, a writer raised on hip-hop who’s hell-bent on “producing work so searingly dope, so unassailably dealing with it, that nobody ever asks…another dumb-ass identity question again.” Complicating that question is his girlfriend, Nina, a Jewish photographer who escapes Soviet Czechoslovakia with a jazz group and deems herself more black than Jewish. Like Tris, Mansbach is wrestling with issues of blackness, Jewishness, and assimilation, though the novel is much less portentious than its moody characters and severe title might suggest; indeed, its portraits of ’30s jazzmen and ’80s taggers have a vibrant, big-New York-novel lift to them. The novel falls off toward the end, jettisoning the long view to center on squabbles between Tristan, Tris, and the women in their lives about famous-writer-dom; what opens as a stirring panoramic snapshot eventually becomes Mansbach contemplating himself in a mirror. By the time the focus narrows, though, he can coast a little—the ambition and artfulness in the majority of the novel’s pages earns it the right to be part of the same conversation as Call It Sleep and The Ghost Writer.
Mansbach discusses and signs copies of his work at 1 p.m. Sunday, March 30, at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. (202) 364-1919.