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.