Thursday, June 23, 2011

Northern exposure.

Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policement's Union is on the surface, and only on the surface, a detective novel. In the vein of detective novels everywhere, Meyer Landsman, the book's protagonist, is a bitterly divorced, heavy drinking policeman facing a number of personal and professional crises, not the least of which being 1) that he's living in a scabrous hotel surrounded by similar sad sacks and 2) his ex-wife, the eminently competent Bina Gelbfish, is also a detective. Who has just become his boss.

However, Chabon is far too skillful a writer to indulge himself in these cliches, and this seems more like a sly nod to the conventions of noir and pulp novels.

The Yiddish Policeman's Union is set in an alternate reality America in which the Slattery Report has been implemented, creating a temporary Jewish settlement in Alaska's Sitka Valley for Europe's Jews to escape the persecution of the Nazis, and the State of Israel lasted only three months before being destroyed in 1948. Germany beat the Soviet Union, Berlin was nuked, and Russia is now on its third iteration of the Russian Republic (Poland's doing pretty well though, which is nice). 

However, the Sitka settlement agreement is only guaranteed for sixty years, and as the novel opens, the Reversion of the settlement back to Alaska is only a few months away, leaving the future of Sitka's Jews very uncertain.

Landsman's ex-wife, Bina, bounds into the crumbling police department to clean house before it's dismantled and given back to the government of Alaska. However, the sad little murder of a heroin addict who was living in Landsman's hotel under the assumed name of Emmanuel Lasker is nagging at Landsman, and despite Bina's exhortation to cold case it, he can't let it go.

Which leads him into a heap of trouble. Together with his cousin and partner, the massive half-Jewish, half-Tlingit Berko Shemets, Landsman starts digging at the layers of intrigue surrounding the dead man, who frequented a local chess hall that Landsman's father Isidor favored before he committed suicide.

As it turns out, the dead man is Mendel Schpilman, the only son of Sitka's resident crime boss, part of an extended, powerful group of ultra-Orthodox Jews known as the Verbovers. Getting on the wrong side of the Verbovers is a fast ticket to disappearing, and Landsman has also managed to get himself suspended from the force after a fatal tangle with another murder suspect. Now he has to try to avoid getting offed by the Verbover's henchmen and the ire of his formidable ex-wife.

Landsman's investigation flips back layer and layer of mystery and draws him deeper into the shadowy world of the Verbovers. Shpilman, apparently capable of performing miracles, was believed by some to be the Tzaddik Ha-Dor (the man with the potential to be the Messiah, who appears once every generation) before vanishing on his wedding day some years before and resurfacing as a junkie corpse in a flophouse. Landsman's search takes him to a mysterious "rehabilitation" complex on Indian territory run by the Verbover's men and a menacing doctor who may be involved in the death of Landsman's sister, Naomi, some years before.

Chabon's alternate reality - a community that resembles chunks of New York and the Old World plopped down in Alaska's icy landscape - is both giddy and heartbreakingly sad. Landsman's fast-talking, hard-boiled shpiel covers up the crumbling core of his life, which is actually an excellent metaphor for the book itself. The hard-luck inhabitants of Sitka are viewing their imminent relocation with a surprising amount of humor and shrugging whaddayawant?, but the Jews in Chabon's novel are still without a homeland and the sting is real and very painful.

The conspiracy that Landsman eventually does uncover surrounding the death of the failed Messiah is rather funnier than I expected, and would be even more believable had I been reading this during the days of the Bush administration, as it cloaked its country-building ambitions in the language of the Crusades.

Chabon plays fast and loose with language here, liberally sprinkling Yiddish, German, and a few other languages throughout the book. Landsman is a consummate wise guy and his snappy, fast-talking crackle is often hilarious. The novel's pace shifts a little in the scenes between Landsman and Bina, who are forced to confront a painful decision the two of them made while they were married. This facet of the novel takes on a more personal dimension considering Chabon's wife, author Ayelet Waldman, wrote an honest and unflinching article about their mutual decision to terminate her pregnancy after discovering the fetus had a rare, life-threatening chromosomonal abnormality.

Chabon's novel is slated to become a movie, allegedly to be directed by the Coen brothers.

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