The Yiddish Policemen's Union
Michael Chabon's new book is his first full-length novel for grown-ups since his Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, seven years ago. In the interim, he's published—among other things—a novel for kids (and their parents), Summerland (Alan Jacobs sings the praises of this book on Vol. 59 of the Mars Hill Audio Journal); and a superb novella, The Final Solution, featuring an aged Sherlock Holmes reluctantly drawn out of retirement.
The Yiddish Policemen's Union is the best new novel I've read so far this year, and I won't be surprised if it wins another Pulitzer or some comparable recognition. It is also a deeply frustrating book—at least I found it so, for reasons elaborated below. If you think you might read it, turn the page right now and come back to this column only after you've finished the book.
That disclaimer out of the way, on to business. In 1938, FDR's Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, proposed that Alaska might serve as a haven for European refugees, including Jews fleeing Hitler's Germany. The purpose was twofold: humanitarian, yes, but also to promote development in that region. The president was on board, but Ickes' proposal didn't fly.
Somehow or other that obscure historical datum caught Chabon's magpie eye. Did he know immediately that he had found an irresistible premise for a novel in the alternative history vein? Did he do a little dance of celebration? Did he foresee even then the giddy metaphysical wit of the cover-art? I don't know. But he did write a novel imagining that the fledging State of Israel died in 1948, only three months after its birth, when "the outnumbered Jews … were routed, massacred, and driven into the sea." Where did the survivors turn? Many looked to Alaska, where—thanks to Ickes and the Alaskan Settlement Act of 1940—some of their fellow Jews had already emigrated.
So many, in fact, that by 1948 there were already two million Jews in Sitka and its environs. (Only a small area in Alaska was open to them.) Congress wasn't disposed to write a blank check ("NO JEWLASKA, LAWMAKERS PROMISE"), and the Settlement was granted "interim status" for sixty years, at which point the Jews of Sitka would again become stateless, left to their own devices to find a new home. Chabon's novel is set late in 2007, with Reversion only a couple of months away.
Wait. There's more. Longtime Chabon readers know that he loves to play with genres, bending and crossbreeding their conventions. If The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a tour de force of "making strange," an alternative Jewish history, it is also a sustained homage to the hard-boiled detective novel.
That's a genre which has been curated, lampooned, retrofitted, and otherwise tinkered with by so many writers and filmmakers for so long, it may seem to be squeezed dry. But Chabon proves equal to the challenge. His protagonist is Meyer Landsman, a fortysomething homicide detective, "the most decorated shammes in the District of Sitka, the man who solved the murder of the beautiful Froma Lefkowitz by her furrier husband, and caught Podolsky the Hospital Killer. His testimony sent Hyman Tsharny to federal prison for life, the first and last time that criminal charges against a Verbover wiseguy have been made to stick."
In Sitka, as you may have guessed, Yiddish—not Modern Hebrew—is the lingua franca. (Shammes, a Yiddish word meaning "sexton," is cited by lexicographers as a possible source of "shamus," though the etymology is hazy. The novel includes a lot of such wordplay, some of which—I'm sure—sailed right past me.) Chabon tweaks the syntax of dialogue now and then, inserts bits of Yiddish, and generally keeps the linguistic pot boiling.
Naturally the book begins with a murder, and with a twist: the victim lived in the same rundown hotel where Landsman has been dwelling since his divorce (his wife Bina, whom he still loves, is also a cop). Indeed, he was killed in his room—shot in the back of the head, with a pillow to silence the explosion. And—to add another genre or subgenre to the mix—there is a chessboard in the room with what appears to be a game in progress, an endgame (chess will run through the book).
Naturally, too, Landsman's investigation of this murder leads him to the heart of a vile conspiracy. The powers-that-be try to get him off the case, but—even when stripped of his badge and gun—he persists. As in many hard-boiled tales, there is a love story in counterpoint to the detective's hunt, but this is a love story with a difference: the object of Landsman's affections is his estranged wife, and their reconciliation has a blessed dailiness that sets it apart from the usual noirish fare. Moreover, both the murder investigation and the love story (which turns in part on an abortion) are framed as reflections on fate and choice.
The Yiddish Policemen's Union is also—along with everything else—Chabon's contribution to two overlapping subgenres: the post-9/11 novel, and the Bush Regime novel. The conspiracy that Landsman eventually uncovers is an unholy alliance between a group of Orthodox Jews determined to reclaim Israel and an evangelical cabal that reaches all the way to the president of the United States. Near the end of the book, Jewish terrorists blow up the Muslim shrine on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In the ensuing confusion, with rival Muslim groups unsure who perpetrated the outrage, the U.S. government will come in on the pretext of restoring order. The evangelicals behind the plan believe that this will hasten the Second Coming of Christ.
Did I mention that the principal evangelical is named Cashdollar? Chabon doesn't care for the Orthodox, the "black hats," but his evocation of them has a certain thickness, an imaginative vitality. The evangelicals, who are trundled on near the end, are so thin they're see-through.
In a conversation with Landsman, Cashdollar concedes that "Jesus wasn't keen on killing, on hurting people," but he adds that the "man could be fairly harsh when he needed to be." Landsman leads the evangelical on—"He was kick-ass"—and Cashdollar takes the bait: "Yes, he was. Now you might not credit the fact, but the end times are coming." And so on. (Evangelicals are at once deviously cunning and painfully naïve.)
Landsman can stand only so much of this—"the infinite gangster weight of God"—and finally he has to tell Cashdollar what he really thinks:
"'F___ you,' Landsman concludes. 'And f___ Jesus, too, he was a pussy.'"
Well, the words that Chabon puts in his character's mouth are just another way of saying that Jesus isn't who he said he was, isn't who those of us who follow him think he is. We're wrong, we're deluded, we're dangerous.
But if Chabon rejects the faith of Orthodox Jews and Christians alike, he nevertheless sees where a proud refusal of all faith leads, and so the whole novel builds to this insight:
Landsman taps the wheel, considering his promises and their worth. He was never unfaithful to Bina. But there is no doubt that what broke the marriage was Landsman's lack of faith. A faith not in God, nor in Bina and her character, but in the fundamental precept that everything befalling them from the moment they met, good and bad, was meant to be. The foolish coyote faith that could keep you flying as long as you kept kidding yourself that you could fly.
I'm not sure I understand the import of "everything … was meant to be," but I'm re-reading the novel. As for the "foolish coyote faith"—or the wiles of the Trickster whom Chabon has elsewhere celebrated, "Coyote and Raven … and our own friend Satan"—I'll stick with Jesus.
Speaking of Jesus, there's one important strand of the novel I haven't even mentioned yet. The murder-victim whose death starts the story in motion is a former prodigy named Mendel Shpilman, who may be Messiah. The tenderness and the persuasiveness invested in this character make me think that Chabon himself is more ambivalent about the healer of lepers than one might suppose from Landsman's defiant words.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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