The Yiddish Policemen’s UnionMichael ChabonHarperCollins, $26.95, 432 pp.
Michael Chabon is an all-out, full-throttle writer, audaciously ambitious in matters stylistic, thematic, and moral. His early stories and novels-densely realistic and blackly funny fiction set in a contemporary culture consumed by questions of sexual identity-began appearing in the late 1980s. By 2000, he had published his Pulitzer Prize-winning third novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a joyride through the world of 1940s Jewish comic-book artists, and a big book in all senses of the word. Chabon’s subsequent work continues to pair his interest in popular culture with his exploration of the twentieth century’s dark history. As guest editor of a controversial 2002 issue of McSweeney’s, he wrote a manifesto celebrating old-fashioned genre-driven plot, and followed that up with The Final Solution, a short novel that resurrects an aged Sherlock Holmes to solve a post-Holocaust mystery.
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union also addresses the lasting effects of the Holocaust. Its darkly exuberant use of alternative history recalls Philip Roth’s recent The Plot against America; and it’s no accident that two significant alternative histories of the Holocaust have appeared in such close proximity. Roth and Chabon both suggest that we have exhausted our capacity to imagine the Holocaust’s realities, and that a more fruitful moral exercise might be to imagine what else might have happened, and what might happen still. Where Roth imagines a 1940 electoral defeat of FDR by Charles Lindbergh, Chabon uses as his point of departure the real (and failed) Roosevelt-administration proposal to set up an Alaskan sanctuary for European Jewish refugees. What if the Federal District of Sitka had actually been established? And what if, sixty years later, the district were now scheduled for “reversion,” a return to the state of Alaska? What would happen to the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Sitka then?
Exile will happen, of course, yet again. And exile is precisely what confronts Chabon’s tragicomic hero, Meyer Landsman, homicide detective. Landsman has not even troubled to file the papers that might allow him (along with other Sitka Jews) to stay in the District. His own police force is shutting down and his pending cases are being closed when the manager of the seedy hotel where he lives calls his attention to a murder on the premises. And so Landsman sets out to solve one final mystery in the weird but convincing alternative reality of the district. In the process, he discovers a vast conspiracy designed to return the Jewish refugees of Sitka and the world to the Promised Land.
Chabon pays homage to the great detective novels of the ’40s, and even manages to tamp down his ebullient prose to suggest the tough-guy voices of Hammett and Chandler-for a while, anyway. But this novel can no more be contained in lean language than its plot can be fulfilled by solving the murder. In a narrative voice that channels Landsman’s despair and raucous humor (Sitka Jews, the “Chosen frozen,” greet each other with “What’s up, yid?”), the novel maintains a delicious tension between the familiar and the absurd. Chabon is enough of a devotee to honor the detective genre’s imperatives-restoring the social order while revealing the hero’s utter aloneness-but he is also enough of a romantic to offer his divorced hero a shot at redemptive love, and enough of a postmodernist to pile on the ironic political and social commentary.
He is, of course, especially interested in the state of Israel. Though the tense proximity of Alaska’s native people and its Yiddish-speaking settlers in Sitka is an ongoing motif, it does not play out as a precise analogue to the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, nor are the implications of settling Jewish refugees in an isolated part of the United States fully worked through. They do, however, provide a clue to the book’s ultimate puzzle: how the murder victim, Mendel Shpilman-a rabbi’s heroin-addict son and a chess wizard believed by many in Sitka to be the Messiah-might lead Landsman to discover where exile will lead the most fanatic of Sitka’s Jews.
Shpilman was born into the Verbovers, an imaginary Hasidic sect, and Chabon is fiercely unforgiving in his depiction of the sect’s male stalwarts, mobsters led by Shpilman’s grotesque and autocratic father. Landsman is already prejudiced against Hasids, and he is utterly repulsed by the Verbovers’ combination of thuggery and piety. By novel’s end, he has merged his anger at the extremist sect with his fury at their allies, American intelligence agents who “sponsor terrorist attacks on Muslim holy places” and “start in with the Crusades all over again.” Such a direct statement about real-world politics in the midst of an alternative-world detective story has kept the Internet humming with comments from Chabon’s readers.
Ten years ago, Chabon published a controversial article in Harper’s about the decline of Yiddish. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is so rich with Yiddishisms that many readers will keep an online dictionary handy. Its glorious language and many allusions-historical, popular, and literary-make it a slower read than Chabon’s other work, and a weary reader sometimes wishes for one fewer colorful character, one fewer simile, one fewer punch line. That, however, is not the bargain a reader makes with an all-out writer; and even in its most rococo piling-on of detail and language the novel remains an engaging story and a moral journey. Every excess in the Yiddish Policeman’s Union is delicately balanced with an insight-often a very funny one-into endurance, faithfulness, and a detective’s healthy skepticism.