Reviewed by Elizabeth McCracken
Sunday, May 13, 2007
THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION
By Michael Chabon
HarperCollins. 414 pp. $26.95
What sort of writer is Michael Chabon? The question, especially considering his terrific new novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, is complicated. Of course he's literary, author of the Pulitzer-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and other marvelous books of fiction. His work is page-turning and poignant; he is one of the best writers of English prose alive. But Chabon has an avowed interest in forms considered perhaps less than literary. He's edited two anthologies of pulp-inspired stories for McSweeney's, written a "story of detection" featuring Sherlock Holmes, and he "presents" a comic book quarterly starring one of the superheroes of Kavalier & Clay. He's interested in busting the chains of everydayness that bind many so-called literary writers: He wants to move and thrill us both, and he does.
Reading The Yiddish Policemen's Union is like watching a gifted athlete invent a sport using elements of every other sport there is -- balls, bats, poles, wickets, javelins and saxophones. The book begins with the introduction of a hung-over detective to a gun-shot corpse in a fleabag hotel. Classic noir, except that the detective drinks slivovitz instead of bourbon: He's Jewish, a kind of Philip Marlovsky named Meyer Landsman, though Landsman is a cop -- a "noz" in the yiddisher slang of the book -- not a PI. The whole local police force is Jewish: The book is set in a present-day alternate reality in Sitka, Alaska, a safe haven set up for Jewish refugees after World War II and the collapse of Israel. Now, after nearly 60 years, the Federal District of Sitka is about to revert to American rule. There are elements of an international terrorist thriller, complicated by religious conspiracy and a band of end-of-the-world hopefuls, and yet the book has a dimly lit 1940s vibe. Maybe that's just because of what Jews and movie dicks have always had in common: felt hats and an affinity for bad weather.
The prose is Chandlerian, too -- lyrical, hard-boiled and funny all at once: "In the street the wind shakes rain from the flaps of its overcoat. Landsman tucks himself into the hotel doorway. Two men, one with a cello case strapped to his back, the other cradling a violin or viola, struggle against the weather toward the door of Pearl of Manila across the street. The symphony hall is ten blocks and a world away from this end of Max Nordau Street, but the craving of a Jew for pork, in particular when it has been deep-fried, is a force greater than night or distance or a cold blast off the Gulf of Alaska. Landsman himself is fighting the urge to return to room 505, and his bottle of slivovitz, and his World's Fair souvenir glass."
Landsman, macerated in brandy and sadness, becomes interested in the hotel corpse, though he has enough dead bodies in his own past to keep him busy: a never-born child, a possibly murdered sister and a father who committed suicide, not to mention the ghost of his marriage to a Sitka policewoman. Landsman calls up his partner and cousin, Berko Shemets, a half-Jewish half-Tlingit big man with a soft heart and what passes in this novel for a happy home life. The corpse turns out to be a chess prodigy and heroin addict, the wayward son of a powerful head of a Jewish sect called the Verbovers, and possibly the key to the essential mysteries of both his own death and the future of the Jews. Landsman and Shemets are on the case, even though any number of people try to throw them off. There are plenty of twists, and the detective finds himself knocked unconscious at the end of more than one chapter and muzzy-headed at the start of the next, which is what it means to be the hero of novels that aren't strictly literary.
The book calls to mind another recent bad-for-the-Jews speculative novel by a major writer, The Plot Against America. But while Philip Roth's alternate history asks, "What if?" Chabon's is an explosion that simply says, "Look here!" He sets about imagining the whole strange world of Aleyska, American-flavored but not American.
The pure reach and music and weight of Chabon's imagination are extraordinary, born of brilliant ambition you don't even notice because it is so deeply entertaining. He invents every corner of this strange world -- the slang of the "Sitkaniks," their history, discount houses, divey bars, pie shops. Despite the complications of the plot, the details of the world are every bit as enthralling. You read so that you can keep following Landsman through doors and down alleys as he pieces together the corpse's past and worries about his own. You can't wait to see what kind of compelling oddball steps out of the next wedge of shadow: the pie man's sad daughter, the 4-foot-7 Tlingit police inspector named Willie Dick. (It's possible that Chabon has too much fun with his names at times.)
Toward the end, the book falters a bit. It's not exactly a cartoon gone off a cliff -- a loss of "the foolish coyote faith that could keep you flying as long as you kept kidding yourself you could fly." Still, it's as though Chabon the virtuosic athlete looked down at his legs and got confused as to what kind of sport he was actually playing. The solution to the murder mystery feels like the last piece of a puzzle snapped into place instead of a startling revelation; the international thriller ticks away offstage; some of the banter is too Howard-Hawks-perfect; and what happens to Meyer Landsman seems like what the book and its conventions -- as distinct from fate -- require of him.
Still, what goes before is beautiful and breakneck; Chabon is a master of such contradictions. "Something wistful tugs at his memory," he writes of his hero, "a whiff of some brand of aftershave that nobody wears anymore, the jangling chorus of a song that was moderately popular one August twenty-five summers ago."
That is part of Chabon's project as well, to conjure up the music, smells, architecture, fashions -- the soul, in other words -- of worlds utterly imaginary, and yet palpably lost, and make us nostalgic for them. The moving, shopworn whiz-bang of historical visions of the future -- world's fairs, Esperanto, a belief that the Jews of the world will stop wandering and find a peaceful home somewhere on the planet -- Chabon loves, buries and mourns these visions as beautiful but too fragile to live. The future will always be a fata morgana. In this strange and breathtaking novel, the wise, unhappy man settles for closer comforts. As Landsman says, toward the end of the book, "My homeland is in my hat." *
Elizabeth McCracken is a writer in residence at Skidmore College.