It's almost hard to believe that Michael Chabon turns 44 years old the day he visits the Buckhead Barnes & Noble this Thursday. The novelist seems to have an eternally youthful demeanor along the lines of Dorian Gray. Maybe it's his longish hair, or the sense of play that infects his work. He didn't just write Wonder Boys, but is one himself.
You could even call Chabon the leading fanboy in a generation of writers who unashamedly embrace the splashy energy of pop culture alongside the intellectual capacities of literature. He won the Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a novel that encompassed the dawn of American comic-book publishing. But he doesn't view pop subjects from dispassionate arm's length. You get the impression that he was thrilled to work on the screenplay for Spider-Man 2, and wasn't just slumming for a Hollywood paycheck.
When he edited McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales and its follow-up anthology, Chabon established himself as a champion of old-fashioned, pulp literary forms, tweaking the notion that "the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story" has cornered the market on short fiction. In this past decade he's dabbled in genre fiction, such as his modest 2004 Sherlock Holmes novella, The Final Solution.
With The Yiddish Policemen's Union, his first major novel since Kavalier & Clay, Chabon stakes his credibility on the narrative powers of genre, while teaching old forms some new tricks. Yiddish makes a mashup of two genres in one, offering at once a police whodunit and an "alternative history" tale of speculative fiction. In The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Chabon's embrace of "low" forms ironically vaults him to a higher level of literary sophistication, while still spinning a "ripping yarn."
The Yiddish Policemen's Union's premise originates from a historical footnote: Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Secretary of Interior floated the idea that Alaska provide a temporary homeland for the Jews displaced by World War II. In Chabon's fiction, an Alaskan city-state called the Federal District of Sitka exists, but the state of Israel never took root, the Jews having lost the war with the Arabs in 1948. The novel takes place in the present day, with Sitka on the verge of "Reversion" to United States control, and the Jewish population facing the possibility of en masse eviction with nowhere to go.
In the book's early pages, Chabon describes his setting so confidently in such detail, you wonder whether there's a real Sitka in the 49th state that your education somehow missed. He mentions that the first generation of Jewish settlers expected Alaska to be a winter wonderland, and instead found "mostly just a lot of angry Indians, fog and rain ... Thousands of Sitka businesses still bear bitter and fanciful names such as Walrus Drug, Eskimo Wig and Hairpiece, or Nanook's Tavern." Tension between the Sitka Jews and Tlingit Indians echoes the present-day Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A murder mystery propels us through Sitka's dark corners and benighted backstory. Homicide detective Meyer Landsman grows obsessed with solving the murder of a chess-obsessed junkie who lived in the same fleabag hotel. Landsman's investigations reveal that miraculous "blessings" surrounded the victim in his youth, leading some to believe that he may have been the messiah.
Like many heroes in detective fiction, Landsman's a hard case who drinks heavily, defies authority and wrestles with loneliness. His family members figure in closely with the mystery plot: Bina Gelbfish, his mournful ex-wife, also serves as his efficient police supervisor, while his partner happens to be his cousin Berko Shmets, a huge, half-Tlingit observant Jew. With Bina and Berko providing lifelines, dogged but flailing Landsman proves reminiscent of Wonder Boys' screwed-up hero seeking to redeem himself.
Chabon has cited admiration for mystery writers such as Raymond Chandler, but The Yiddish Policemen's Union doesn't read like a hard-boiled pastiche. Compared with the sparseness of classic private-eye novels, Chabon sets off pyrotechnic displays. He particularly likes imagery from cartoons and comic strips – "Wire gray hair stands out all over his head, like beams of outrage in a newspaper cartoon" – but the habit seldom feels affected. The book resembles a collaboration between Philip K. Dick and Vladimir Nabokov, with the cult sci-fi scribe concocting Sitka's rules and overall sense of decay, and Lolita's language-loving craftsman polishing the prose.
Dense without being difficult, The Yiddish Policemen's Union rewards reflection on its multiple layers, including its metaphors for modern geopolitics. The U.S. government's influence in the book's larger conspiracy nods toward America's real-world mistakes in the Middle East. Plus, the book offers a unique perspective on the Jewish experience, with intriguing riffs on Zionism and the Jewish history of expulsion from other lands. Paradoxically, Sitka exudes the richness and idiosyncratic qualities of Jewish culture, while being a figment of Chabon's abundant imagination.
At some moments you worry Chabon will give over to kitschy-corny theatrics, particularly when he introduces a dashing, diminutive Indian detective named Inspector Willie Dick. Like most complicated mystery stories, the book devotes its last leg to watching the gears of the plot turn. Nevertheless, dime-novel adjectives such as "astounding" and "enchanting" affix themselves to The Yiddish Policemen's Union, which will blow into bookstores and knock down the divisions between the Literature, Mystery, Science Fiction and Judaica sections.
You'd expect nothing less from a wonder boy.
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