Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a blend of Jewish folklore with detective fiction, a sort of Saul Bellow meets Raymond Chandler. Or maybe if Bernard Malamud wrote haggadic murder mysteries. It begins, as all good noir begins, with the knight-errant detective, a real mensch of a cop named Landsman, called upon in the middle of the night to investigate a mysterious murder. Through the unfolding plot, Chabon draws a richly imagined world of a civilization that never was, a Jewish homeland in Alaska instead of Israel.
Landsman follows the clues to find a murderer and along the way we are introduced to every aspect of the Yiddish society of Sitka, from department stores to bars as well as the characters who inhabit the city. Landsman’s journey through this imaginary landscape resembles Chandler’s descriptions of Los Angeles as Marlowe prowled those city streets. The investigation and journey by necessity reveal many secrets of the society. The overarching tension of the novel is that the homeland, established by the United States government after World War II, is about to be dissolved. Due to the expiration of the agreement, the Jews are about to experience yet another diaspora.
In the establishment of this tension, Chabon explores the cultural dilemmas and stresses that occur as a people face the possibility that their culture and their identity will disappear. This worry is one common to Jews for hundreds of years, one which has historically fed Jewish fears of assimilation as well as annihilation. It’s this same tension that fueled the hostility some expressed toward Chabon in reaction to his 1997 review of Say It In Yiddish, a language guide which was originally published in 1958. Referring to it as “probably the saddest book I own,” Chabon wondered where one would find useful a book rendering into Yiddish such phrases as “Where can I get a social security card?” To most readers the essay was of little significance, but to a few Yiddish speakers with internet connections, Chabon had delivered an insult. He seemed to be making light of the language, they thought. Predictably, an internet khiluke-deyes soon erupted. Irate Yiddishels responded with fiery insistence that Yiddish is not dead or dying, claims that the Germanic tongue is a full language and not a mere dialect, and angry reminders that Yiddish was once heard throughout Israel. Chabon was accused of being both anti-Semitic and a self-hating Jew, an experience of which he told Salon.com, “I don’t think you’ve arrived as a Jewish-American writer until you’ve been attacked for being self-hating.”
During the writing of the essay, Chabon had looked into where a Yiddish guidebook might have once come in handy. That research yielded a little known bit of historical trivia: during World War II, President Roosevelt had entertained the offer of some American territory as a homeland for Jewish refugees. The location of the homeland: Sitka, Alaska. In his essay, Chabon imagined “another Yisroel, the youngest nation on the North American continent, founded in the former Alaska Territory during World War II as a resettlement zone for the Jews of Europe.” This nascent thought developed over several years into a thoroughly realized fictional place, a frozen ganeydn of Yiddish speakers.
If you’ve ever wondered what a detective novel written by a Pulitzer Prize-winner might be like, here’s your chance. Chabon’s usual prose style offers a more lyric line than is found in this novel. He shifted gears for his attempt at this genre, adopting a style more akin to Dashiel Hammet or Raymond Chandler: terse, tense sentences where the knowing voice of Landsman slowly introduces you to his arcane world. Early drafts of the novel were written in first-person; the limited omniscience of the final version limits itself to the mind of Landsman, retaining the intimate feel of its genre antecedents.
The anticipation has been high, since last year when the book was delayed, for what is Chabon’s first full-length novel since The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which won the 2001 Pulitzer Price for fiction. It is perhaps the most deftly plotted of any Chabon novel. The story moves at a steady and determined pace while Landsman follows the evidence to the climax. As the mysteries and clues begin to dovetail toward a climax, the traditional course of the detective story takes a turn. Conspiracies, secret societies, and heavy paranoia rise as Landsman penetrates the shadowy veil of obfuscation that surrounds the murder.
While Chabon’s earlier novel Wonder Boys occupies a special place in my heart, the new novel quickly took second place among my favorites of his work. Due to my past connection with the author, I’m not exactly a difficult sell: Chabon is one of my favorite authors and, in my opinion, a really swell guy.
I met Michael Chabon in 1996 during the publicity tour for his novel Wonder Boys. The book had so captivated me that I tracked down copies of his first novel (Mysteries of Pittsburgh) and collection of short stories (A Model World). In no time I was a fan. I put together a few web pages focusing on the author and his work. Then I sent Michael an email, pointing him to the pages. He wrote back, thanking me for the attention.
We met when he was doing a reading and signing at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. The audience was small so the signing didn’t take long, which gave me several minutes afterwards to talk to him. There were only four of us there: Michael Chabon, a bookstore employee, my girlfriend, and me. We talked about baseball and writing, the internet and literature. Michael personalized my books with very nice messages. They occupy a central place in my collection.
Tonight we’re among a half-dozen or so people. We talk about the Yiddish controversy, other books set in Sitka, and predictably end up discussing politics and the war in Iraq. The author is somewhat famously liberal in his political views and is, a Berkeley resident at a bookstore in West Hollywood, among friends. Hints of current geopolitics can be found in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, particularly in the climactic solution to the mystery Landsman attempts to solve. Michael wonders how much longer the prevailing neo-cons can hold on to power. Someone tries to get him to sign some gag playing cards with pictures of the Bush administration. Michael shuffles through them and sets them aside.
It’s over too soon and Michael is whisked off for the reading and signing. He’s applauded by the audience and surrounded by admirers. Hungry and cold, I decide to slip out and head home. I don’t like crowds, and besides, the fun part is over.