Monday, August 27, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon

I'm not sure why I liked this book so much, but I did, and I'd recommend it to just about anyone as a good literary detective novel. And yet. . .

The book is an "alternate history" (a genre that makes absolutely no sense, as it only identifies the form, and says nothing about the content), in which the displaced Jews of WWII were offered a home in Sitka, Alaska. With a large population of them in Alaska, there was less support for a Jewish homeland, and the infant state of Israel was crushed in a Middle Eastern war in 1948, and the survivors also came to Alaska.

However the offer of refuge was not permanent, and the Federal District of Sitka is scheduled to revert to the state of Alaska after 60 years. As the book opens, the reversion date is only months away, and there is no other place that will welcome the 2 million Sitka Jews.

The main character is Meyer Landsman, a homicide detective of the noirish cliche: he is divorced, drowning his pain in work and alcohol, living in a fleabag hotel. He rarely eats, can't sleep, and is awake when the night manager knocks on his door with the news that one of the hotel residents is dead.

The murder is of a thin young man, in his early 30s, a heroin addict who uses his tefillin to tie off. It is a terrible picture of religious ruination, and Meyer takes this case personally.

We are treated to the standard list of detective plot devices: his ex-wife is promoted to become his boss; official word is to label the case as unsolved and close it; Meyer Landsman refuses to comply; he drags his unwilling partner into the mess that comprises the case. We are given the slight cliche relief in that his partner is not days away from retirement, rather his wife is pregnant with their third child. Landsman finds connections to very powerful people, finds himself beaten, shot at, and running through the Alaskan snows in his underpants--because no fictional detective is ever able to solve a case without an unbelievable amount of physical abuse to his body. And I do mean unbelievable.

Even the title ends up in service of a cliche--Landsman loses his badge, so in order to question a reluctant witness, he flashes his Yiddish Policemen's Union membership card, in hopes that the witness can't read Yiddish and will believe he has some official position.

Eventually, Landsman finds a large scale conspiracy that goes all the way to the top. Yes, the evangelical American President is assisting the insular Verbover Jews of Sitka to blow up the Dome of the Rock, so the Temple of Jerusalem can be rebuilt and the Messiah return. Of course, to the Jews, Messiah hasn't come yet, but they want the Temple rebuilt as well.

Again, unbelievable, and written in a way that does not make the plot any more credible. Instead, it feels cobbled together, which is really a pity, because Chabon's writing is so good. Really, his ability to convey the paranoia of a famously paranoid peoples is outstanding. The Sitka settlement has its own industries, it's own law enforcement, it's own jargon to describe the various waves of immigration to the area. The Jews of the lower 48 refer to the Sitkans as "Icebergers," which actually cracked me up. The operating language of Sitka is Yiddish, but most of the residents are also fluent in "American," which they primarily use for it's swear words.

I found most intriguing the various social levels, and the internecine tensions between the various Jewish sects. The "Verbovers" are prosperous, insular, and ultra-Orthodox. Their prosperity is generated by smuggling, illegal arms sales, all the shadowy pursuits of organized crime. At the same time, all activity stops at Sabbath sundown, and even the most violent of the threats aimed at Landsman are immediately followed with "May you have a good Sabbath."

The Jews are, of course, not alone in Alaska. There are the "Indianers" who stand to profit with the reversion of Sitka, creating another level of tension the Jews live under. There is the disgraced Uncle Herz, who was a FBI spook for years, clandestinely using federal funds to fight for permanent status for Sitka, but was outed by the newspaper. There is also a series of father-son relationships that play out as well. Landsman feels responsible for his father's suicide many years ago; Johnny Bear/Berko Shemets sheds his Indian identity and converts to Judaism in an attempt to connect with his father; the Verbover rabbi who lost his only son to chess and drugs. The novel is rich in human relationships, which are ultimately the strength of the book, rather than the detective story plot.

Chabon's language is also delightful: evocative and playful. When describing a department store that has been empty for several years, Chabon describes where the store's name used to be as "the braille of failure." He describes a woman's eyebrows as "reaching for each other" or getting "entangled" as a way of describing her expressions. He is able to capture the many moods of snow, the kind that falls through the streetlights, the kind that melts as spring comes, the various shades of white and grey that are winter.

This is not the book for someone looking for a great mystery, but it is a wonderful read.