by Adam Levin


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"Adam Levin is one of our wildest writers and our funniest, and Bubblegum is a dazzling accomplishment of wit and inventiveness." —George Saunders 

"Levin's brains may have earned him a cult...but here he swells to a democratic reach. Give him a try sometime. His gate’s wide open.” —Garth Risk Hallberg, The New York Times Book Review

The astonishing new novel by the NYPL Young Lions Fiction Award-winning author of The Instructions.

Bubblegum is set in an alternate present-day world in which the Internet does not exist, and has never existed. Rather, a wholly different species of interactive technology—a "flesh-and-bone robot" called the Curio—has dominated both the market and the cultural imagination since the late 1980s. Belt Magnet, who as a boy in greater Chicago became one of the lucky first adopters of a Curio, is now writing his memoir, and through it we follow a singular man out of sync with the harsh realities of a world he feels alien to, but must find a way to live in.
     At age thirty-eight, still living at home with his widowed father, Belt insulates himself from the awful and terrifying world outside by spending most of his time with books, his beloved Curio, and the voices in his head, which he isn't entirely sure are in his head. After Belt's father goes on a fishing excursion, a simple trip to the bank escalates into an epic saga that eventually forces Belt to confront the world he fears, as well as his estranged childhood friend Jonboat, the celebrity astronaut and billionaire.
     In Bubblegum, Adam Levin has crafted a profoundly hilarious, resonant, and monumental narrative about heartbreak, longing, art, and the search for belonging in an incompatible world. Bubblegum is a rare masterwork of provocative social (and self-) awareness and intimate emotional power.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385544962
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/14/2020
Pages: 784
Sales rank: 459,395
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.90(d)

About the Author

ADAM LEVIN is the author of The Instructions and Hot Pink. He has been a New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award winner, a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and a National Jewish Book Award finalist. A long-time Chicagoan, Levin currently lives in Gainesville, Florida.

Read an Excerpt

Jonboat Say

Growing up, I’d heard, “Shut your piehole, cakeface,” a couple or three times a week from my father. The piehole thats shutting he’d demand was rarely mine, though. It usually belonged to someone well outside shouting range—as frequently a radio- or television newsman as a bested foe in a dinner table anecdote of everyday interpersonal victory—and never to my mother. She’d never been a cakeface. Not to my father or me at least. Nor had she ever used the saying herself, and, after she was gone, I wondered what, if anything, that might have meant. Except for when she’d hear it from my father’s mother, who’d put a bite behind the piehole that somehow made it sharper than whatever slur the cakeface was being used to euphemize, the saying seemed always to incite her to smile, yet I may have been too young to distinguish true amusement from motherly indulgence. I may have been too young to tell a smile from a smirk.

Come to think of it, I can’t recall my mother ever smirking.

But all of this to say that while Jonny “Jonboat” Pellmore-Jason, by eventually having made it his catchphrase, popularized “Shut your piehole, cakeface,” it had been ours first. My family’s. We Magnets’. He learned it from me.

There used to be a couple of tetherball courts in the middle of the playground next door to our house, and one day, around the start of seventh grade, Blackie Buxman and I were facing off on one of them, playing best-of-nine for a soda and chips, when Jonboat, who’d moved to town a week earlier, declared his intention to challenge the winner. Buxman wouldn’t rob liquor stores for years yet. He was, at that time, our school’s starting pitcher and basketball center. I lacked strength and was average of stature. My competitive streak was the width of a noodle. Having grown up so close to the playground, however, I dominated foursquare and tetherball the both. Blackie must have forgotten, or maybe never known. When I beat him five-zip, he evinced disbelief. He said, “No way,” then spoke to me rudely. “Go assfuck a swingset, you psycho,” he said.

That cut me a little, but I came back fast. I said, “Fetch me my cold Cherry Coke and Pringles. In the meantime, though, shut your piehole, cakeface.”

Jonboat laughed.

The crowd around the court took a couple steps back, alarmed and confused. I possessed at that time a fair-size, however provisional measure of blacksheepish cool, and so was someone who’d have normally been able to get away with wising off to Buxman in response to a slight—it would have looked like we were riffing—but Jonboat’s laughter bent the social calculus. No one quite understood where he fit yet. Girls seemed to like him. He was certainly big. His father was Jon “Jon-Jon” Jason, and his granddad Hubert “All Hell” Pellmore. Nevertheless, Jonboat was the new kid; the new, rich, blond kid. He didn’t have friends, or we were, all of us, his friends—none of us were sure. For all we knew, Jonboat was too blond and rich—was that a thing? It seemed like it could be and it seemed like it couldn’t. Did he have the right to laugh at Blackie’s expense, though? And if he had the right to laugh at Blackie’s expense, did I have the right to get credit for his laughter? Did Blackie Buxman have to save face?

Blackie thought he did. So it was Jonboat or me. Someone had to hurt. I was the easy choice, and Blackie liked it easy, simple as that. He stepped in my direction. Jonboat shoved him sideways. Blackie reached for Jonboat, and Jonboat smashed his nose.

“You’ll pay,” Blackie said.

“Shut your piehole-cakeface, gaylord,” said Jonboat.

Blackie loped home without buying me snacks. Jonboat roundly defeated me at tetherball—five to three—and took me out for pizza. We were friendly for a while, though not really friends til a few months later when he beat me up at school.

• • •

After spending a semester using “piehole” as a modifier and pushing back the comma so the saying could abide the direct address “gaylord,” Jonboat—who’d by then taken Blackie’s starting spot at center, gotten to third with a sitcom ingénue at a party at the White House over winter break, and become, hands down, the goldenest goldenboy in Wheelatine Township, perhaps in all the greater Chicagolandarea—realized, I think, that even as “Shut your piehole-cakeface, gaylord” had entered the everyday parlance of our school, it was ineradicably branded Jonboat, and thus he felt free to change it up. I’d heard versions ranging from G- to X-rated. “Stuff your greasehole-fryface, burgerking.” “Hide your oofhole-bruiseface, punchingbag.” “Plug your stinkhole-assface, widehind.” “Wipe your meathole-lipsface, cumdump.” Etcetera. All versions got laughs, though none beat the original—at least not to my taste—and, ultimately, I think I felt flattered to have had my family’s best saying appropriated by someone as handsome and affable as Jonboat. It helped, too, that he acknowledged my role in the process. When, just before Easter, he came up with the idea to add “Jonboat Say” to the front of the catchphrase and put it on T-shirts, he consulted me directly, and accepted nearly all the advice I gave. All of it except for one small piece, which eventually, though indirectly, caused the brief spasm of trouble between us.

We both agreed the T-shirts should be all-cotton and Superman red. We agreed that the image Jonboat had drawn—a balding and openmouthed fatman’s head (colossal uvula, flappy underchin fold) beside a disembodied hand and a motion-line array expressing an imminent, four-fingered slap—should be printed on the chest below “Jonboat Say” and above the catchphrase. We agreed that the lettering should look like it had the texture of spray paint, that the image should be black on a square white background, and that “gaylord” shouldn’t appear on the shirt, as “gaylord” would make it unwearable at school. I, however, was of the opinion that, absent “gaylord,” the comma should be restored to its original position between “piehole” and “cakeface,” whereas Jonboat claimed restoring it would ruin the shirt. He said that, first of all, with a comma before “cakeface,” the shirt would have to be considered “officially punctuated,” which would require a period be placed after “cakeface,” not to mention a colon, if not another comma, after “Jonboat Say,” and quotation marks around the catchphrase itself, i.e.,

jonboat say:

[almost-slapped fatman image]

“shut your piehole, cakeface.”

This, believed Jonboat, was more punctuation than a T-shirt could abide.

Secondly, he explained that, as his use of the saying had long since demonstrated, he thought it sounded better without the comma; that commanding a person to shut his piehole-cakeface was stronger than just commanding some cakeface to shut his piehole. With that I disagreed, though not too heartily, and I kept my opinion to myself. But I did suggest that a hyphen be placed between “piehole” and “cakeface” in order to really bring across the compoundedness of the two already-compound words. Jonboat wasn’t sure. He thought a hyphen might suggest “official punctuation,” giving rise to the problem that ditching the comma had already solved. Then again, it might not. A hyphen might be more like a spelling thing—more like an apostrophe. We briefly tossed around the idea of making “piehole(-)cakeface” a single word, i.e. “pieholecakeface,” but it looked like Italian spelled by a Slav, and we figured that even if readers of the shirt could recognize “pieholecakeface” as English, they were bound to be confused about where the stresses fell. And so we were back to do- or don’t-hyphenate.

Jonboat suggested we sleep on it.

• • •

I awoke the next morning erect and depressed. I was twelve years old, wanted someone to touch me, and knew no one would. In the months since Jonboat had bloodied Blackie’s nose, some things had changed. First and foremost, my mother had died, a loss so fundamental that it didn’t, much of the time, seem possible. I knew I would never see her again and, when I thought about that, I’d pull neck muscles crying, yet after having mourned just five or six weeks, I no longer thought about it—at least not so directly. Which may as easily have meant that I’d “entered a self-preserving state of denial” as that I’d “arrived at acceptance of the loss.” The therapists differed; I didn’t care. I didn’t know what any of it meant, and to try to sort it out seemed self-destructive, masochistic at best. The loss was too massive, the thought of it too painful, to analyze the style in which I chose—or was compelled—to feel it.

Plus there was my skin—newly oily and porous. And I’d developed dandruff, slight myopia, and whiskers over my upper lip too sparse and feline to call a mustache. The UV-sensitive, autotinting lenses of my overlarge glasses (black wire frames, vaguely aviator-shaped) never fully clarified; even in basements, milk was beige. My father no longer cared to fight about my haircut, and although it had remained the same for the most part—long in the back, short on the top, shorter yet on the sides—horizontal stripes above each of my ears were now clippered down to stubble so my temples looked vented. Eight of these stripes. Four per temple. I’m pretty sure I smelled. Something did. And the stoic, ringbound–Kid Dynamite approach to basic ambulation I’d been trying to affect since seeing Tyson KO Biggs—ground-focused glares and smooth rollings of the neck punctuated by sudden, prey-tracking head-tilts—came off less gladiatorial than Crispin Gloveresque (I learned this through observing how Blackie Buxman spoofed me when we passed in the hallways: all unswinging arms, tightened lips, and startled twitching), and I wanted to quit it, and I tried my best, yet I couldn’t seem to teach myself to walk how I used to; my muscles refused to shake their training. The fire in my eyes, perhaps wild once, sputtered. In mirrors, I suffered, appeared to be crooked. To my peers, my blacksheepishness had ceased to seem elective. Where before I’d been an outsider, now I was an outcast. Even authority figures—even the smiley ones—emptied their expressions when I entered their shops, their classrooms, their offices.

I don’t know why all of this struck me that morning, or if it really did, but that’s how I recall it—being in my bed thinking it. “Outcast, retard, psycho, creep.” My erection uselessly sweating in my briefs. Worse than uselessly. It was getting in the way. My bladder was full.

I headed for the bathroom, where I leaned and angled, aiming not to tag the seat or the lid. I tagged the lid a little, tagged the seat a lot. There was sprayback on the tile, the side of the tub. I sopped the mess with tissue and returned to my room to wait for the pinch in my loins to subside.

There I heard my cure rustling around in its PillowNest. The flushing toilet must have awakened it. I removed the nest’s lid, and found the cure sitting up beside its rear ejection. “Morning, Blank,” I said. It played at deafness. I repeated my greeting, and it lay on its belly, closed its eyes. “Blank,” I said to it. “Blank, Blank, Blank.” But Blank wouldn’t stir.

Blank was short for Kablankey, the name I’d given it, at my mother’s suggestion, for the sound of its sneeze. It had responded to Kablankey since the age of four days, but within a couple months—right around the time I’d vented my temples—I’d determined that Kablankey was overly cutesy. Yet because my mother had liked the name, I couldn’t abandon Kablankey entirely; to do that would have somehow dishonored her memory. So I’d been calling it Blank for maybe four or five weeks, and although it had started responding to Blank, which indicated that it knew it was Blank, the responses seemed to follow too much hesitation, and for the past few mornings, the cure had faked sleep til I’d called it by its full name. The faking, in itself, didn’t bother me at all; I found it as adorable as anyone would. I just didn’t want to have to say Kablankey anymore. Especially that morning. I wasn’t in the mood.

“Blank,” I said.

Its eyes remained closed.

I removed the rear ejection from the nest with a tissue, brought it to the bathroom, flushed it down the toilet.

When I returned to the bedroom, Blank was still faking sleep.

“Blank,” I said.


I refused to lose a battle of wills with a Curio. I had a closet-door-mounted toy basketball hoop and, after finding the inflatable ball that went with it, I started taking shots by the foot of the bed. Inside a minute, Blank climbed from the nest, leapt from the nightstand onto my pillow, and, as I continued pretending to ignore it, shinnied down the comforter and stood at my feet.

“Blank?” I said.

Blank showed me its palm.

I cupped a hand by my ankle and the cure climbed in. It slumped for a moment, still catching the breath it lost getting to the floor, then lay along my forearm, an ear to my pulse, and embraced my wrist like a watchband. I cooed affirmations, scratched it on the neck. It pushed a closed eye against my wrist skin and squeezed. This was nice for a minute, but soon I was antsy, and I got the idea to play a game of chase: I would set Kablankey back down on the floor, roll the basketball at it, then watch it bound adorably away in fear.

Of course the trouble with this game was Blank over-trusted me. Or maybe it wasn’t a matter of trust—it might have been more a matter of stupidity. It seemed, however, like trust to me, or possibly even something like faith, for I’d seen Blank flee things I hadn’t set in motion. One time a cricket, down in the basement. Another time the sound of Jon-Jon’s chow chow killing a squirrel beneath the elm across the street. That morning with the ball, though, Blank watched me setting up. It saw me providing the force behind the roll. And yet, until the ball—an object roughly twice its width and half its weight—was entirely upon it, it just stood there, waiting, the same expression on its face as when I’d give it a candy.

The ball ran it over and kept on rolling as Blank smacked its head against the rim of a nickel that was standing on end, half-submerged, amidst the rough fibers of the wall-to-wall carpeting. At first it didn’t seem too hurt. It sprung up as quickly as it had been knocked down and even seemed poised to do the shuffley little dance thing it so often did when it would sense I was worried or angry about something. But then the ball, having bounced off the baseboard and traveled the path on which I’d set it in reverse, ran Blank down again, this time face-first. I swept the ball out of action—set it firmly on the bed—and when I turned back to look, Blank, though wobbly, was upright once more, shifting its weight from foot to tail, its elbows pointing outward like wings, and its hands autistically flapping the air by the sides of its pinkening, rugburned muzzle.

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