Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen's Union (Michael Chabon)

I’d read a few of Michael Chabon’s stories before being handed a copy of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (thanks, Mom!), a sprawling, genuinely amazing novel about the intersection of comics, World War II, escapism, revenge, art, and love that includes Antarctica, the premiere of Citizen Kane, and Salvador Dali in a diver’s helmet. (What’s not to like?) I’ve read it three times, and I assure you that the Pulitzer committee got this one right.

So it’s not really a criticism to say that his new novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, doesn’t match Kavalier and Clay—it’s still an idiosyncratic, inventive, thoroughly enjoyable ride, with the same fluidity in the writing that has always been Chabon’s greatest asset. Set in an alternate time line in which Israel failed and a temporary Jewish home was established in Sitka, Alaska (as was apparently actually proposed by Franklin Roosevelt at one time), the story follows alcoholic, divorced, entirely unhappy police detective Meyer Landsman after a murdered man is discovered in the hotel where he’s been living. Hanging over every moment is the imminence of Reversion, when Sitka ceases to be an independent district for Jews and becomes just another part of America, one where Sitka’s current residents may or may not still have homes. Reversion has brought a sense of weary fatalism to almost everyone in the story, one that comes out again and again as Meyer investigates the case and confronts both the barely concealed underworld of Sitka and the various broken pieces of his own life, including a sister who may or may not have been murdered herself, his ex-wife, and their long-ago unborn baby.

If I have a criticism, it would be that at times the story leans to heavily into the conventions of detective noir—Meyer too much the alcoholic, unhappy detective, his partner Berko (despite having the singular distinction of being a half-Jewish, half-Tlingit giant) too much the buddy sidekick, the ghosts of Meyer’s past sewn up a little too well into his current troubles. But the vibrancy of the setting, the pleasure of Meyer’s stubborn, self-destructive quest—the pleasure of all stubborn, self-destructive quests in the face of tidal historic forces—and Chabon’s writing make up for a lot. Sure, Landsman is too much the alcoholic, unhappy detective, but I’m a sucker for a well-turned metaphor, and it’s difficult to resist exuberant ones like these:

According to doctors, therapists, and his ex-wife, Landsman drinks to medicate himself, tuning the tubes and crystals of his moods with the crude hammer of hundred-proof brandy. But the truth is that Landsman has only two moods: working and dead. . . . The problem comes in the hours when he isn’t working, when his thoughts start blowing out the open window of his brain like pages from a blotter. Sometimes it takes a heavy paperweight to pin them down.

Or this description of Meyer as a boy playing chess with his father, a skilled player unable to understand his son’s incapacity for the game:

Satisfied, burning with shame, he would watch unfold the grim destiny that he had been unable to foresee. And Landsman’s father would demolish him, flay him, vivisect him, gazing at his son all the while from behind the sagging porch of his face.

Or this sleazebag American muckraker attempting (and failing) to speak the Yiddish native to Sitka:

“I want a story,” Brennan says. “What else? And I know I’ll never get one from you unless I try to clear the air. So. For the record.” Once again he lashes himself to the tiller of his Flying Dutchman version of the mother tongue.

It’s the kind of writing where, whatever other flaws there are, every once in a while you have to stop reading and shout, “Yes, dammit! That is how it is done!”


Unknown said...

Hey! Come on. What's wrong with a little detective noir? Sounds perfect to me. I'm gonna find this book

Jim Duncan said...

Hehe. Nothing wrong with it--I like detective noir! But here, maybe because the setting and culture were so unconventional, the conventions felt like they were branded with big neon signs, and I kept noticing them.

Definitely check it out, though--I'd be curious to hear what a real detective-novel fan thinks of it.

Unknown said...

Got my hands almost instantly on this book and tried to read it. The setting and the culture were what took me down. I had to work too hard to figure out what was going on. I don't read out loud, or even move my lips (at least nobody every accused me of that, mouth breathing maybe, but not moving my lips) but the constant attack of unpronounceable yiddish (I guess), words with too many consonants, was more than I could handle. Working hard I was on page 48 after 3 days.

Last night I read about 150 pages of Robert Parker's Hundred Dollar Baby, in about ???? an hour and change. But then I already knew how to pronounce the words and I've been in Boston a couple of times.