In Michael Chabon’s marvelous new novel, the Alaskan panhandle is an imperiled, makeshift holy land.
(Photo: Sophie Bassouls/Corbis)
* By Sam Anderson
If you should ever have the good fortune to match wits with me in a game of chess—and if so, let me congratulate you here in advance on what will surely be one of the more confidence-boosting episodes of your life—you’ll find that, as soon as we’ve exchanged our rooks and bishops and knights, and our queens have committed mutual regicide, and we’re left with a handful of pawns and kings scattered over the board like loose change, something curious will happen: My life force— the potent concoction of vim, vigor, piss, vinegar, and other vital fluids that I’ve been spritzing your way all game in an effort to distract you from my blunders—will drain out of me and soak into the carpet, and I’ll get sullen, and refuse to move, and then make long enthusiastic speeches in sign language in an attempt to knock over the board, and after a while, if the game keeps going, I’ll consciously slow my heart rate until I slip into a vegetative state. Your best course of action, when this happens, is just to tip my king over and tell me the next day that I did it myself, and then to help yourself to the contents of my wallet. I’ll pay you the rest in a couple of months.
I offer this unsolicited tutorial for a couple of reasons. First, because Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union—an excellent, hyperliterate, genre-pantsing detective novel that deserves every inch of its impending blockbuster superfame—is largely about chess, in particular the game’s knack for snagging people in its cold little gears and grinding all the spirit out of them. But I also mention it because this peculiar deficiency—my toxic allergy to the tedium of endgames—applies equally to detective stories: I enjoy the setup exactly as much as I hate the ending. Every detective story begins, like every chess game, with an unbroken vista of bounteous promise that soon turns into a big satisfying mess: a hash of clues, hunches, suspects, red herrings, threats, alibis. This builds through the middle stages until, about three-fifths of the way in, you reach an ecstatic moment of maximum complexity. And then the endgame arrives: Imagination is shanked by cold-blooded calculation, the magnificent bloom is reduced and pruned, loose ends are double- and triple-knotted, and All Is Revealed. You start to read out of a sense of duty. It’s depressing.
Chabon, unfortunately, is not exempt from this letdown. Although he cranks away with all kinds of fresh energy, he’s still limited by the detective story’s familiar machinery: When trails go cold, chance encounters heat them back up; imminent death is reliably thwarted by coincidental nearby hubbubs; guilty parties give helpful expository speeches.
I only mention this disappointment up front because it happens to be my single real reservation about The Yiddish Policemen’s Union—and technically it’s not even Chabon’s fault, just my own distaste for an unavoidable feature of the genre. Also, I wanted to establish at least the illusion of some kind of critical credibility before I started gushing.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is set in an ingeniously rich alternate reality: the makeshift holy land of Sitka, Alaska, during what everyone in the book agrees are “strange times to be a Jew.” In this world, the millions of Jewish refugees displaced by World War II have all come to America and settled along a thin strip of Alaskan wilderness, where they squabble with the native Tlingit Indians and suffer “six months of intensive acclimatization by a crack team of fifteen billion mosquitoes working under contract with the U.S. Interior Department.” In 1948, when the destruction of Israel brings a second wave of immigrants, Congress declares the land a federal district, and a thriving Jewish society plants its roots. Now, in the waning months of 2007, their 60-year term is about to expire, and the land is set to revert to plain old goyim Alaska—its current residents are “like goldfish in a bag, about to be dumped back into the big black lake of Diaspora.” Everyone is scheming to get permanent-residence permits or preparing to flee to places like Madagascar. Chabon sculpts this alternate history down to a miraculous degree of detail—pious Jewish gangsters, abandoned strip malls with touchingly defunct Yiddish signage—so it feels natural and immersive and (despite being so clearly a gimmick) never gimmicky. In many ways, this Jewish Alaska is the greatest character in the book.
Anyone looking for a precise political allegory hidden in this backwoods American Diaspora won’t have an easy time. Chabon seems more interested in his alternate world as a novelistic challenge—how to bring something so outlandish to life?—than as some kind of subtly coded analysis of contemporary Middle Eastern politics. While the book revels in Jewish culture, it also rejects fundamentalism in all its forms. The only real grotesques are the True Believers—the crazed, power-hungry Americans and a Jewish sect called the Verbovers—who disguise sinister and selfish agendas as true faith.
Our hero is Detective Meyer Landsman, a classic hard-boiled loose cannon supercop with “the memory of a convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker. When there is a crime to fight, Landsman tears around Sitka like a man with his pant leg caught on a rocket.” True to the hard-boiled formula, he enters the novel thoroughly spent: a 44-year-old workaholic and alcoholic, wrecked by the memory of his chess-addicted father’s suicide, his sister’s mysterious death, a heartbreaking abortion and a divorce—all of which has left him a cynic in a world of true believers: “To Landsman, heaven is kitsch, God a word, and the soul, at most, the charge on your battery.”
Landsman stumbles onto a murder that taps into the molten core of international Jewish politics, and he’s helped and opposed by a colorful cast of characters: his ex-wife, Bina, a by-the-book ball-breaker; his partner, Berko, the human embodiment of Indian-Jewish conflict; Inspector Willie Dick, an anti-Semitic Tlingit midget on a ¾-size motorcycle (“Jews mean bullshit,” he says. “A thousand laminated layers of politics and lies buffed to a high sheen”); Zimbalist, the ancient “boundary maven” in charge of tying and maintaining the District’s sacred eruvs (his pants are “stained with egg yolk, acid, tar, epoxy fixative, sealing wax, green paint, mastodon blood”). And Mendel Shpilman, chess genius and alleged messiah.
The novel’s central mystery hinges on a chess problem that was designed, Chabon tells us in the acknowledgments, by Vladimir Nabokov—and like the Russian puzzlemaster, Chabon seems to be trying, entertainingly, to push vivid prose to its natural limit. His sentences are clean and cocky and loaded and at least as entertaining as the mystery itself. He lavishes incredible, almost impractical care on each little unit of description—characters who are barely even characters get identifying characteristics (a totally inconsequential limo driver is “a jockey-shaped Filipino with a scar on his chin like a second smile”). Chabon can be lyrical (“The wind jerks the snowflakes back and forth on its hundred hooks”), understated (“Half an hour out of Yakovy, Landsman decided to spice up their journey with a judicious application of vomit”), and aphoristic (“Every generation loses the messiah it has failed to deserve”). He’s totally, blissfully addicted to metaphor: Landsman’s ex-wife “accepts a compliment as if it’s a can of soda that she suspects him of having shaken.” A pretentious, overly formal journalist speaks Yiddish “like a sausage recipe with footnotes.” An awkward father-son hug “looked like the side chair was embracing the couch.” A female bodyguard speaks “in a voice like an onion rolling in a bucket.” (Her laugh sounds like “someone jumping up and down on a leather valise.”) In a crowded apartment, two babies are “stashed away on the balcony like disused skis.” Rain is “tossed in vandalistic handfuls at the windshield.” A salmon is an “aquatic Zionist, forever dreaming of its fatal home.” “A woodpecker rattles its cup of dice.” I’m struggling not to quote half the book. There is, of course, much to be said for writing that doesn’t work so hard to be vivid—that ignores entertainment value in favor of hard truth, or, like Beckett, radically expands our notions of what might count as entertainment. But there’s also much to be said for this kind of writing, and you can’t do it much better than Chabon has here.