First Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, now this. In The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Michael Chabon finally unleashes the genre storyspinner who has been lurking inside him all these years. In the past, Chabon has used his love of genre as inspiration for well-crafted literary fiction, whether it was H. P. Lovecraft (Wonder Boys) or Golden Era comics (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay). But this is the first time — excepting his so-so Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Final Solution or that comic serial he’s been writing for the New York Times— that he’s really just dove right in and told an entire novel, one worthy of ranking with his best, from a perspective that might not be so welcome on the genteel fiction pages of The New Yorker.
There’s a murder, of course. Always a murder. A tough-guy cop whose smart mouth, insubordination, and general lack of class have made him persona non grata with his superiors and his ex-wife (the latter of whom, it turns out, is also going to be the former). An ugly family history, rife with secrets. A political situation that’s been throbbing with tension for decades and is about to blow sky-high. Then there’s the fact that it appears to be a modern-day setting in Alaska, only the state has been subdivided since the mid-20th century into a homeland district for Jews (the Federal District of Sitka). And you can forget about Israel, that dream died back in ’48. The Holy Land is “on the far side of the planet, a wretched place ruled by men united only in their resolve to keep out all but a worn fistful of small-change Jews. Jerusalem is a city of blood and slogan painted on the wall, severed heads on telephone poles.” So the diaspora huddles in frozen Sitka, coexisting in extremely uneasy fashion with pushed-aside Native Americans (shades of modern-day Israel) and waits nervously for Reversion, when Sitka will get reabsorbed back into the United States proper, and what will happen after that is anybody’s guess.
Slaloming in an extraordinarily ungainly, though highly amusing, fashion through this mess is Detective Meyer Landsman, an unholy mess of a cop living in a fleabag hotel where a junkie chess addict was just found murdered. The investigation sputters at first, with Chabon using the time to set his scene, the millions of Jews huddled in the frozen north, waiting to be kicked out into history’s whirlwind once again. The line, “strange times to be a Jew,” tumbles off most everyone’s lips at some point, somewhere between a resigned mantra and a “Who is John Galt?”-like rhetorical refrain. At Landsman’s sarcastic side is his half-Tlingit, half-observant Jew Berko Shemets, who functions as the dutiful and long-suffering wife in this cop pair, Meyer being the inattentive and long-suffered husband. Chabon illustrates their relationship quite succinctly with a nice line about kissing the mezuzah outside Berko’s apartment, “That is what you do if you are a believer, like Berko, or a mocking asshole, like Landsman.”
Having established with a few sure strokes both a hard-boiled noir scenario and an alternative historical setting rife with potential, Chabon heads straight into murder mystery territory, with impressive results. Under pressure from Berko and his ex-wife Bina — now their new superior, specially appointed to clear up loose-end cases for the gentile cops coming in after Reversion — not to screw things up, Landsman has finally fit a few things together in his head and come up with some leads. The most fascinating of them leads to the possible involvement of the Verbover clan, a band of ultra-Orthodox Jews (known as “black hats” in Sitka) who live on the own island, which contains a Potemkin Village-like replica of the Old World shtetl they originated from, and just so happen to also be a ruthless and powerful crime syndicate. There are also hints of messianic cults (Christian and Jewish) casting their eyes Israel-ward, thinking about how to reverse the defeat of 1948.
As a mystery, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union may not be the most imaginative, especially in the last 50 or so pages, when, like a sprinter who put on the gas too early, Chabon’s funny, profane, and Sitka-Yiddish-riddled prose begins to wheeze a little bit trying to pull everything together. But this slight criticism is more than alleviated by Chabon’s fantastic creation of Landsman, without whom this very impressive book would be not much more than a curiosity. Like Chandler’s Marlowe at his best, Landsman is hard-boiled but hardly a tough guy. Reckless is more like it, and stupidly lucky. The kind of guy who thinks too much and too hard, pisses too many people off with unasked-for opinions and an irritating tendency to be right, drinks himself stupid, and has a soft spot for goodness and justice that he’d rather die than allow anyone to see. He’s the glue that holds the pulp universe together; without wisenheimer detectives like him nosing about, asking annoying questions, getting beaten up and shouted down for doing so, and showing his union card around to no effect (“It has a six-point shield in one corner. Its text is printed in Yiddish. It carries no authority or weight, not even with Landsman, a member in good standing for twenty years”), the universe would make just a little bit less sense.