The Yiddish Policemens Union by Michael Chabon

Carlin Romano
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

Michael Chabon writes the best Saul Bellow novel since Saul Bellow died -- antic, droll, brainy, Yiddishy, secular, updated to present-day American -- but with differences that reflect literary times and their discrepant personalities.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Publisher: HarperCollins
ISBN: 0007149824
Author: Michael Chabon
Price: $26.95
Length: 432
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-05

Michael Chabon writes the best Saul Bellow novel since Saul Bellow died -- antic, droll, brainy, Yiddishy, secular, updated to present-day American -- but with differences that reflect literary times and their discrepant personalities.

The Nobel Prize-winning, university-haunting, philosophy-spouting, gal-chasing Bellow, one generation removed from the shtetls of Russia and Eastern Europe, found his kupf endlessly filled with the greats of European high culture. Freud, Marx or Rudolf Steiner inevitably bollixed up the thoughts of a Moses Herzog or Charlie Citrine, obstructing such straightforward goals as bedding the next American looker who walked by.

Chabon, the 43-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2001), a bravura romp of two cousins in the comics business that interwove Holocaust themes, novelizes as a man of his literary generation. He's been instructed by mass media and others since MFA-babyhood that pop culture trumps high culture seven ways to Sunday, that we learn more from Philip K. Dick or Dashiell Hammett than from Tolstoy or Flaubert.

Chabon is also a famously long-married, nice-guy husband with four kids at a stage when Bellow counted four wives on his record. His fiction perhaps coincidentally lacks the Sammy-Glickish, peevish, get-ahead-at-all-costs edge of Bellow and many of his characters, a bent that came more naturally to Jewish American writers when they, rather than Indian Americans or Chinese Americans, stood as the ethnic outsiders trying to bust into America's previously genteel literary parade.

All that might account for why joyous stylistic brilliance can't quite alleviate minor intellectual letdown after reading Chabon's fourth novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, an alternate-history yarn in the sports jacket and slacks of a Raymond Chandler noir. Is there a meaningful backstory to all the entertaining shenanigans Chabon cooks up?

It's not obvious that Chabon cares. Bellow cared.

Two adjectives -- "inventive" and "imaginative" -- pop up everywhere in the giddy reviews now greeting "Union. Let me count some ways, since they mislead more than help.

The action and high concept take place in 2007 in the Federal District of Sitka, a shoreline strip on two Alaskan islands, part of the then-yet-to-be 50th state handed by Congress to the displaced Jews of Europe in 1948 when Israel failed to last as a nation. The U.S. government offered Jews a 60-year halfway house in Alaska, but the "Reversion" will take place on Jan. 1, 2008. Sitka and its 3.2 million residents are "a bulb that's about to go black."

Yes, 3.2 million residents, an urban beachhead near Alaska's frozen tundras. Addresses like Zhitlovsky Avenue and Oysshtelung Street. A Hirshkovits School for the Deaf. Cell phones dubbed shoyfers. It's like wandering around a frosty, prewar Vilna with one of those art-museum iPods switched to 21st-century Americanese. Everyone's stressed, and a leitmotif runs through the book -- "It's a strange time to be a Jew."

In this Yiddishkeit theme park, Chabon zeroes in immediately on Meyer Landsman, a depressed 44-year-old police detective with many of the problems issued to noir gumshoes as they transit the Ellis Island of thriller fiction. He's divorced, a drinker, afraid of the dark despite facing down "shtarkers and psychopaths," and his ex-wife Bina now operates as his boss.

Landsman's Sancho Panza, or Tonto -- a half-Jewish, half Tlingit sidekick named Berko Shemets -- can't always save him from incompetence. But "Union will offer Landsman one final just-cold case. Two sentences into the book, someone's put a bullet in the head of the guy in Room 208 of the rundown Hotel Zemenhof, spurring night manager Tenenboym to rouse the downbeat shamus who now lives in Room 505.

The victim -- give Chabon credit for pulling out all the Hollywood stops -- turns out to be "Emanuel Lasker," a.k.a. Mendil Shpilman, a gay, heroin-addicted, ex-Hasid chess pro, possible Messiah, and son of a nefarious Hasidic rabbi. Before Chabon brings down the curtain, "Union" will somersault along with plots, conspiracies, a U.S.-Cuban war, riffs on Jewish philanthropy, and more.

In fact, "imagination is not the right compliment for Chabon's wonderful evocation of Sitka, just as "frozen chosen" is not a Chabon coinage, but a phrase Jews in Minnesota and elsewhere have used for years. As Chabon acknowledges in interviews, Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary of the interior briefly raised the idea of making Alaska available to European Jews at the outset of World War II.

Similarly, Stalin actually created a still-existing Jewish Republic in the Soviet Union's Far East. Chabon also may not be aware that a large community of European Jews emigrated to the town of Sosua in the Dominican Republic, where they built a tropical Sitka and that country's largest dairy. (If Chabon is inclined to a sequel, Sosua's the place, and he needs to stock up on sunscreen.)

Chabon's kudos should come less for inventiveness and more for nonpareil urban planning and literary architecture. It's the detail, the metaphors (a salmon is "an aquatic Zionist, forever dreaming of its fatal home"), the atmosphere, that make "Union," and Sitka, a runaway delight.

What we learn about Jews is more uncertain. Landsman at one early point does something just "to spite himself, because spiting himself, spiting others, spiting the world is the pastime and only patrimony of Landsman and his people." Not a promising insight.

Philip Roth may be the recipient of PEN's first Saul Bellow Award this spring for his factory-like sentences and productivity, but it's Chabon who's carrying on the Jewish American tradition of stylistic brilliance, making us laugh with the tilt of a sentence, the tone of a clause.

Does it mean anything? Does that matter? Hard questions for literature in the age of genre-worship. A strange time to be a novelist.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.