A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned in the handy go-buy-stuff sidebar to your left that I was reading through Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and since a couple of people asked what I thought of it, I figured this would be as good a place as any to respond.
So here’s the short version: It’s good.
Really good, in fact, which probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, given that Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which in my opinion nobody with even a passing interest in comics–or just really good novels, what with that whole Pulitzer thing–should be without. But then, given that it’s the story of characters inspired by Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Jim Steranko, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster set against the rise of the Golden Age and World War II, anyone who’s interested in my opinion of Chabon’s work has probably already read it.
So back to Yiddish Policemen’s Union: According to an interview he gave with NPR, Chabon was partially inspired by, of all things, Marvel’s What If?, but instead of that book’s shaky, half-baked premises that fail to deliver–and I’m looking at you here, “What If the Hulk Became a Barbarian?”–Chabon sets his story in a world where the State of Israel was overrun in 1948, and Jews searching for a homeland after the Holocaust were sent instead to Sitka, a Federal District created by the US Government in sunny Alaska. And when the novel begins, it’s November of 2007, two months before their sixty-year lease is up and the land reverts back to US control, sending the Jews of Sitka wandering once again.
Outside of that major premise, there are a few other references to the alternate history of the book, including a mention of Marilyn Monroe as Kennedy’s First Lady and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Berlin, but they’re brief, and generally without consequence other than to remind the reader that things are different in Chabon’s Sitka. What does matter, though, is the sense of incredible uncertainty that the setting lends to the novel: The characters might not all be living on borrowed time, but they’re literally living on borrowed land, and as the mystery at the center of the story deepens, there’s nothing certain for them to hold onto.
And that’s the world that plays host to the main character, Meyer Landsman, a homicide detective who’s about as far down on his luck as he can be. Even among a whole city of people about to be homeless, Landsman’s problems are pretty intense. In the grand tradition of the hard-boiled detective–a stereotype that Chabon seems to have a great time playing with in the way that he casts Landsman as a jaded, self-destructive hardass with a secret fear of the dark and the fact that we don’t even learn his first name until like fifty pages into the novel–his marriage has collapsed, he’s living on his own in a fleabag, and he wakes up to find an impossible case that’s just fallen into his lap.
It’s the classic private-eye setup that gives us a classic private-eye opening line that I’m just in love with:
Nine months Landsman’s been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered.
It’s a fantastic opening line, full of a bitterness that’s sharper than Spillaine and meaner than Chandler, and it just gets better from there. It probably goes without saying at this point that Chabon’s use of language is just incredible, shifting between complex religious imagery to the staccato one-liners of the hard-boiled detective almost effortlessly. It’s the latter that sticks with me, since that’s a genre I hold pretty dear to my heart, and there’s one line that just absolutely floored me.
It happens when Landsman goes to see his ex-wife–who is also his superior officer–after they’ve both been interrogated by FBI after Landsman’s off-the-books murder investigation leads him to be chased naked through the snow. They’d both been locked up for over a day getting the third degree from Government agents, and when he finally sees her again, it’s when he barges in twenty minutes late for his own suspension hearing:
Bina looked like hell, only hotter.
It’s a simple line, but man, it’s a great one.
Anyway, as you might expect from the above description of the events leading up to it, the plot is, to say the least, far-reaching. What starts as the murder of a junkie in a flophouse leads up through the ranks of organized crime, chess tournaments, national cover-ups, and all the way to the Messiah, with a brief stop at the impending Apocalypse for good measure. But as you read it, you realize that all that stuff’s just going on in the background: It’s not about that any more than it’s about what would happen if Jews were relocated to Alaska instead of Israel. It’s a story about Landsman and his unstoppable, unquenchable need to know, and the lengths that he’ll go to find things out.
And like I said: It’s really good.