In his first full-length novel in seven years, Michael Chabon strings up a literary high-wire and performs a complex and beautiful act. An ambitious melding of what-if history, pitch-black humor and 1940s noir, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union serves as a companion to Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay as it further explores Jewish identity and the nature of exile.
What if, of course, is the starting point for all creative work, but Chabon finishes that question with flair: What if, as FDR suggested, Alaska — and not Israel — becomes the home of displaced Jews after World War II? What if Jewish settlers, fleeing the horrors of eastern Europe, instead are permitted to colonize the Federal District of Sitka with the guarantee they can stay there unmolested for 60 years? And what happens when the time runs out?
This high-concept premise is a worthy cousin to that of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (What if Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh defeated FDR in the 1940 election?). Like Roth, Chabon has enough chutzpah and skill to transcend formula or cocky literary conceits. His talent grounds him enough to maintain balance, even when he teeters.
Chabon has dipped into the traditions of detective fiction before, for his Sherlock Holmes novel The Final Solution, and he has studied his noir manual dutifully, using an amusing Yiddish slang in place of Raymond Chandler’s wise-guy poetry. Our guide through his odd, frozen world is Meyer Landsman, an alcoholic detective who might be Philip Marlowe, if Marlowe drank slivovitz instead of gimlets and worked with a huge, half-Tlingit, yarmulke-wearing partner who was also his cousin.
These are, as Chabon’s weary refrain tells us, strange times to be a Jew. “Everybody has a funny feeling these days,” says Meyer, who is in serious trouble even by the standards of the two million Sitka Jews, who are in something of a pickle. The 60-year reprieve is just about over, and they find themselves facing a process called Reversion, after which, once again, they will be doomed to exile.
Meyer, though, faces more immediate problems. He has been drunk a lot since his divorce. He lives alone in a dump of a hotel. His formidable ex-wife Bina, also a cop and still starring prominently in his dreams, has just been named his supervisor. And then there’s the matter of the chess-playing junkie shot dead in room 208. Meyer’s in 505, where, upon hearing of the murder, he “picks up the shot glass that he is currently dating.”
But like all essentially good but flawed men who tumble into the abyss of self-pity, Meyer senses that this case might bring him redemption. Maybe it’s the link to chess. Meyer’s father taught him the game, and he can’t see a chessboard without remembering “the sagging porch” of the old man’s face as he watched his bored son lose on purpose. Maybe he just enjoys flouting departmental orders to drop the case. Either way, he believes there’s more to the story than a dead junkie who used a prayer strap as a tourniquet for his final shoot-up and looks to Meyer as if he might have once been a “black hat,” code for a member of an extremist Orthodox sect.
From that point, Chabon sends us deeper into a world where Native American and Jewish tensions roil; where a Yiddish-strewn vocabulary means a latke is a beat cop and a sholem is a gun; where kids wear polar-bear jammies that seem “to be meant ironically. Snowflakes, yes, the Jews found them here, though, thanks to greenhouse gases, there are measurably fewer than in the old days. But no polar bears. No igloos. No reindeer. Mostly just a lot of angry Indians, fog, and rain, and half a century of a sense of mistakenness so keen, worked so deep into the systems of the Jews, that it emerges everywhere, even on their children’s pajamas.”
Chabon is a fearlessly descriptive writer. Zimbalist, the boundary maven who prevents the Orthodox from violating the Sabbath, resembles “a small bear urged by cruel masters to perform demeaning feats.” His laugh “sounds like a handful of rusty forks and nail heads clattering on the ground.” Sometimes, though, Chabon goes too far: When a man peers closely at a picture, “there is something vampiric in the gesture, as if he’s trying to drain a vital liquor from the photograph with the lamprey mouth of his eye.” You could spend the next 60 years trying to figure that one out.
But, in the end, Meyer’s quest — which leads him to the imposing, dangerous Rebbe Gold, whose violent thugs roam the streets with peyes flying — is entertaining and atmospheric, and Chabon mines melancholy from his deceptively wry tone. (“They keep on making Jews,” observes Berko, Meyer’s partner. “Nobody is making places to put them.”) It’s easy to fall into Chabon’s rhythm as he weaves a flesh-and-blood alternate universe from sprigs of Jewish mysticism and the scraps of fear, violence, revenge, redemption, even love, that lurk in our hearts. Strange times to be a Jew, indeed. But a great time to be a reader.