The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

September 9th, 2008 at 6:33 am

The Yiddish Policemen\'s Union by Michael Chabon

Somewhere between Jonathan Safran Foer and Philip Roth is Michael Chabon. With Chaim Potok a great uncle to them all.

And that man in the middle, Michael Chabon, has written one hell of a fine story with The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. It most certainly deserves the shiny metal penis that it has won.

It won that shiny metal penis, an award for achievement in science fiction, because, as the jacket copy informs us, “For sixty years, Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered in the Federal District of Sitka, a “temporary” safe haven created in the wake of revelations of the Holocaust and the shocking 1948 collapse of the fledgling state of Israel.”

Genre-wise, that’s alternate history. And The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is also a mystery. And a hardboiled detective noir crime story. Which Michael Chabon would be perturbed that I’m even mentioning. Why must “genre” fiction be isolated and differentiated? So I’ll focus on the fact that while this book is indeed a brilliant alternate history and hardboiled detective mystery, it is most of all one hell of an entertaining tale. The short chapters usually end with cliffhangers and the in-between is full of turning plot points and suspense and revelations and action and raising stakes.

Never short of creativity and imagination, Chabon takes us into an underworld of black hat sects, a society of Jewish mobsters. It felt to me like Cormac McCarthy, but instead of cowboys, Jews. And yids, shuls, ganefs, platzs, latkes, rebbes, biks, gabays, nozs, and shammes.

Alaskan terrain serves as an apt metaphor for the bleak, unfortunate history of persecution and hardship of the Jewish people while their survival in such difficulty is a testament to the Jewish sturdy spirit and survival mentality. And “reversion” serves as a metaphor for continued plight and persecution.

And these Jews are fierce!:

“High, narrow forehead, black eyes hard as a couple of stones left on a grave marker. He has concealed his girlish mouth in the manly bloom of a King Solomon beard, fitted with careful streaks of gray to suggest maturity. The sidelocks hang limp and orderly. He has the air of a self-denier, but his clothes betray the old Verbover love of flash. His calves are plump and muscular in their silk garters and white hose. He keeps his long feet encased in brushed black velveteen slippers. The frock coat looks fresh from the bespoke needle of Moses and Sons on Asch Street. Only the plain knit skullcap has a modest air. Underneath it, his brush-cut hair glints like the business end of a paint-stripping rotor. His face displays no trace of wariness, but Landsman can see where wariness has been carefully erased.”

And Chabon, unable to help himself, proves to be quite funny as well:

“Rabbi Heskel Shpilman is a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running. A little kid lumped him together, a mob of kids, blind orphans who never laid eyes on a man. They clumped the dough of his arms and legs to the dough of his body, then jammed his head down on top. A millionaire could cover a Rolls-Royce with the fine black silk-and-velvet expanse of the rebbe’s frock coat and trousers. It would require the brain strength of the eighteen greatest sages in history to reason through the arguments against and in favor of classifying the rebbe’s massive bottom as either a creature of the deep, a man-made structure, or an unavoidable act of God. If he stands up, or if he sits down, it doesn’t make any difference in what you see.”

Michael Chabon may very well be the Stanley Kubrick of book writing, an auteur so at the height of his powers that each of his works is distinct and very different, yet each one carries with it a palpable style that is uniquely his own.

And cloaked in the genre of 40s noir and hardboiled detective mysteries and the content of orthodox Jews, Chabon sneaks in some topical issues and current events as the murder our protagonist-detective has spent the first three quarters of the book trying to solve starts to evolve into a global plot to secure a homeland in Jerusalem:

“Because they think the idea of a bunch of crazy yids running around Arab Palestine, blowing up shrines and following Messiahs and starting World War Three is a really good idea.”
“They’re just as crazy, Bina. You know they are. Maybe they’re hoping for World War Three. Maybe they want to crank up a new Crusade. Maybe they think if they do this thing, it will make Jesus come back. Or maybe it has nothing to do with any of that, and it’s all really about oil, you know, securing their supply of the stuff once and for all. I don’t know.”

Depending on your perspective, Chabon’s topical descent into Jews vs. Palestinians and terrorism and oil with feel either clunky and forced or brilliant and fresh.

I, for one, am always in the mood for a good Texas joke:

“I don’t know much about Palestine,” Spade says. “I’m from Lubbock. My wife is from Nacogdoches, though, and that’s only about forty miles from Palestine.”

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