Monday, May 14, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

The Yiddish Policemen's Union, the latest and perhaps most ambitious novel by Michael Chabon, author of the Pulitzer-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, is quite a feat of literary invention. It's a detective story -- essence of film noir -- set in a Sitka, Alaska that's been reimagined as a Jewish homeland.

The book received a "score" of 75 ("generally favorable") at MetaCritic, with Kirkus Reviews calling it "A page-turning noir, with a twist of Yiddish, that satisfies on many levels," and, on the other end of the spectrum, USA Today calling it "an ordeal to read" with "two very dark story lines that jar the reader." About the latter review: huh?

Terrence Rafferty, writing 5/13 in The New York Times Book Review, comes off as having mixed feelings about the artistic success of the novel. His concluding paragraph: "A simple message about the power of everyday love might seem a dismayingly small payoff for this whirling, intricate story, but the book is also about how the grandest fictions raise expectations unreasonably high, paralyze us with anticipation, doom us to the perpetual check of chronic dissatisfaction, unshakable as an Alaska chill. Nice novel. You were expecting maybe the Messiah?"

My review of the novel appeared May 13 in the St. Petersburg Times.

Here it is:

He doesn't miss a beat
Author Michael Chabon invents a hard-boiled cop fighting crime in a Jewish homeland in Alaska.
By PHILIP BOOTH, Special to the Times
Published May 13, 2007

Meyer Landsman, the protagonist of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon's latest relentlessly inventive feat of imagination, wears a porkpie hat, favors rumpled clothes and smokes and drinks to excess even though his body tells him he ought to quit. He has a frustrating relationship with his ex-wife, and his personal and professional lives are hopelessly intertwined.

Tragedies from Landsman's past, including suicide, murder and abortion, poison the present and threaten his future. He suffers from "tinnitus of the soul." His attitude is bad, yet he's addicted to his job as a police detective. A part of the shamus' duty, as he sees it, is to help expose "the abyss" to those who once felt safe: "That is part of the policeman's job, to jerk back the pretty carpet that covers over the deep jagged hole in the floor."

Landsman is a rough-hewn, world-weary pessimist, hailing straight from the land of noir fiction and film. More not-so-buried evidence: He runs into a character named Spade (think Sam, Dashiell Hammett's private eye) and the colorful tale references Chandler (think Raymond).

Then again, Chabon's thoroughly entertaining feat of literary fiction hardly is standard-issue noir, and Landsman's beat is worlds away from Chandler's Los Angeles and Hammett's San Francisco.

The faithless cop instead works in a Sitka, Alaska, of the author's marvelously fertile imagination. Chabon's Sitka is an interim homeland for the world's Jews, established by the U.S. Congress in 1940 (an idea actually floated by Franklin Roosevelt at the time), eight years before Jerusalem collapsed and residents of the short-lived republic of Israel were massacred.

The city, a socially and economically stratified district characterized by its own traditions and secretly ruled by a black-hat (Hasidic) mafia, is as fantastically detailed as the 1940s landscape in the author's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and a tad reminiscent of the alternate universe created by Philip K. Dick for The Man in the High Castle.

The time of Chabon's novel is approximately now, and Sitka is on the verge of reverting to the state of Alaska, meaning that Landsman, his ex-wife and new supervisor, Bina, and his best pal Berko, a Tlingit Indian who converted to Judaism, may be forced to leave the place they know as home. The mood is distinctly apocalyptic, with more than one resident declaring, "Strange times to be a Jew." How strange? A cat mates with a rabbit, a preslaughter chicken offers prophesies concerning a messianic arrival, and a human face with beard and sidelocks appears in the night sky.

Any good noir starts with a murder, and that's what sparks the action of The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Mendel Shpilman, a chess-obsessed heroin addict once revered as the Tzaddik Ha-Dor, a messiah in the making, is discovered dead in the Zamenhof, the fleabag hotel that Landsman calls home. Shpilman, who turns out to be the estranged son of the region's most powerful rabbi, was killed execution-style. Landsman sees it as his mission to collar the culprit, come hell or the stripping of his badge, both of which are in store for the cop, who hopes to win back Bina and gain a measure of redemption for his troubles.

Landsman, thus tempted and figuring he has nothing to lose, slips down a rabbit hole of intrigue, a dangerous path that leads to Sitka's hinterlands (a place where multicolored cows carry religious significance), the unearthing of scary old family secrets and, most frightening, a terrorist plot driven in part by the United States.

Chabon's prose, as in the riotously funny 1995 writer's-life comedy The Wonder Boys and the stories collected in 1999's Werewolves in Their Youth, is marvelously descriptive.

"Night is an orange smear over Sitka, a compound of fog and the light of sodium-vapor streetlamps. It has the translucence of onions cooked in chicken fat, " he writes about the view from the roof of his hotel. And, a few lines later, "Landsman can smell fish offal from the canneries, grease from the fry pits at Pearl of Manila, the spew of taxis, an intoxicating bouquet of fresh hat from Grinspoon's Felting two blocks away."

Metaphors run amok in the novel: Bina's snoring "has a double-reeded hum, the bumblebee continuo of Mongolian throat-singing." Those unfamiliar with Yiddish terms may wish for a glossary, like the one that Anthony Burgess included in A Clockwork Orange, a novel that also benefits from extreme wordplay, dark humor and a fantastic world of its own making.

But, just as Landsman needs Bina to hold his hand – "only in the metaphorical sense" – as the two burrow through a tunnel, so too can the author be trusted to guide readers through an unfamiliar world.

Why trust Chabon? Because his characters are so well drawn and, ultimately, sympathetic, and his crackerjack storytelling is deeply intelligent and downright entertaining.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

By Michael Chabon

HarperCollins, 432 pages, $26.95

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