Have You Read …? Chabon thriller is set in alternate Jewish Alaska reality
Ryan Summerlin July 31, 2007
“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” by Michael Chabon
There’s really no one in the literary world quite like Michael Chabon. For one thing, he’s clearly not interested in being literary, in the dust-covered, traditional sense of that word. In the introduction to his “Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales,” he professed to being bored with literary, epiphanic writing. He pined to return to the sort of “ripping yarns” heroes like Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James once turned out — stories full of “plot and color.”
In his latest novel, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” Chabon resurrects that kind of genre fiction, making it into something entirely new, and infusing it with more color than you’d expect from a noir Sam Spadestein gumshoe detective Alaskan murder mystery alternative-history Jewish-identity chess thriller.
In Chabon’s wonderful new book, you’re asked to consider what would happen if the state of Israel had never come to be, and instead, as Franklin Roosevelt proposed on the eve of World War II, a temporary Jewish settlement called Sitka had been established in snow-bound southern Alaska in 1948? And what if control of Sitka, home to 2 million of God’s “frozen chosen,” was about to be handed back to America after 60 years of independence? What would that sense of impermanence do to a people? To what nutty and dangerous lengths would they go to secure themselves the homeland reportedly promised them by God?
Now before you go thinking that “Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is some sort of straight-up Jew geo-political thriller, guess again. The novel starts with a down-on-his-luck alcoholic cop named Meyer Landsman stumbling upon a corpse in a sagging, worm-eaten motel. There’s a gunshot to the back of the junkie corpse’s head, marks left behind by tefillin used as a tourniquet for a quick fix, and an unfinished game of chess. To salvage his decrepit, run-down, pickled soul, Landsman embarks on a dangerous game of whodunit with his half-Jewish, half-Tlingit partner, Berko Shemets, by his side, and his ex-wife, Bina Gelbfish, trying to call the shots as chief detective at Sitka Central. Turns out the dead body may have been the Tzaddik Ha-Dor – the messiah, one who is born into every generation just in case the time is right for one.
Then there’s Sitka itself, jam-packed with characters that you know aren’t real, but you wish to God were for fascination’s sake. The vivid descriptions of Sitka’s cast of characters are endless, and endlessly entertaining. Here’s Rabbi Heskel Shpilman, head of Sitka’s ultra-Orthodox Verbover Jews, a clan every bit as murderous and menacing as Tony Soprano’s: “Shpilman is a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running. A little kid lumped him together, a mob of kids, blind orphans who never laid eyes on a man. They clumped the dough of his arms and legs to the dough of his body, then jammed his head down on top. It would require the brain strength of the eighteen greatest sages in history to reason through the arguments against and in favor of classifying the rebbe’s massive bottom as either a creature of the deep, a man-made structure, or an unavoidable act of God. If he stands up, or sits down, it doesn’t make any difference in what you see.”
There’s lots of Yid-kidding and Jewish language wordplay in this book. But all kidding aside, there is also a huge hole of sadness at the center of it. Without getting too political on you, there is something profoundly sad about the idea of Jews without a homeland, of a people driven to mad, radical extremes to satisfy their religious and mystical traditions, of a group still living in exile after all these years.
Now, about all the Yiddish. I admit it will create a roadblock for some readers. At times, it can be like trying to get through James Joyce’s Ulysses without a firm grasp of Gaelic and an understanding of Dublin’s intricacies. Even this former New York Jewess had trouble figuring it all out with my smattering of Yiddish from childhood. I won’t make the argument that Chabon is this generation’s Joyce, but I would encourage you not to let the fear of a few foreign words get in the way of discovering this truly gifted writer. “Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is wonderful, kind of weird and definitely worthy of your efforts.
— Diane Lewis is a library technician at the Lake Tahoe Community College Library.