Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

Chabon writes as though he is crafting poetry, not prose. That’s not to say that his work is poetic, per se, but that the art of his work is in the fact that it reads as though every word he sets to the page is a deliberate and much-deliberated choice. Thick with metaphor and simile, his writing makes the reader feel as though they’re in the hands of a author who lets nothing happen by chance, who makes no mistakes, without feeling intimidated.

You don’t have to “work” to read Chabon’s writing. It is not slow. It is not confusing. It is, simply, gorgeous.

And The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is as gorgeous as anything Chabon has written. The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay ranks in my top five favorite books ever, and this book is only slightly less astonishingly good. I struggle to put my finger on the difference between the two. Perhaps it is that K&C had an epic quality, or perhaps I just connected more deeply with the material because I enjoy comic books and NYC history.

I mean that not to diminish The Yiddish Policemen’s Union in the slightest. Nor to suggest that this book lacks an epic quality. But here the epic revolves around politics and culture, and not an individual.

Remarkable on every level, this book, like K&C showcases the depth of Chabon’s knowledge of Jewish history, knowledge that he uses to build the foundation of an alternate history, one in which Sitka, Alaska—not Israel— becomes the temporary homeland of displaced Jews post WWII. Sitka is not meant to be a permanent home, and now, in 2007, the territory is set to revert back to an American holding—“Alaska for Alaskans” is a political rally cry of the day. The looming reversion will mean another exodus for the “Frozen Chosen,” who have few, if any, viable options.

“It’s a strange time to be a Jew.” The refrain appears again and again, spoken by character after character.

At the center of the story is Meyer Landsman, divorced, alcoholic, rogue cop who lives in a flop house straight out of a noir novel. A murder has occurred in his run-down hotel home, and just when you think that the book will be a noir mystery that happens to be set in troubling times, the plot spins wide and reaching and suddenly the thriller embraces international politics, terrorism, mysticism, the second (or third) coming of the Messiah, and even the End Times.

Like any noir detective, Landsman is sympathetic in his flaws. But more than most iconic gumshoes, he’s loveable. His greatest sorrows haunt him and move him to tears on a regular basis. He’s an asshole who takes advantage of his kinder, more centered friends, but does not do so without regret. The tiny thread of a love story in the novel is among the most believable and moving that I’ve encountered of late.

My only complaint, and it’s not a complaint so much as a regret, is that Yiddish, the language of the Sitkans, plays such a central role. If I understood even rudiments of Yiddish, I might have found the book even funnier and even more tender.

As I read the last chapter, I snuck a peek at how many pages were left and saw that there were but three. I stopped reading and cursed Chabon for creating such a dense and complicated book—there was no way he could finish it in a satisfying way in three pages.

I was wrong. I am satisfied. Satisfied in that any true, tie up all loose ends, ending would create an impossible Die Hard-ish fairy tale of a thriller. His (again satisfying) ending is messy and frustrating. But the situation is messy and frustrating. Any neat ending would have felt fraudulent.

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