Unlike 2003's flimsy detective novel, The Final Solution, or the recent serialized epic adventure, Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon has at last returned to the dense and inventive storytelling that he refined so well in the historical homage of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. This time, in The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Chabon turns to an alternate history in which Israel, losing the war of 1948, is scattered once more, settling in the temporary refuge of Alaska, the Federal District of Sitka. In addition to the creative descriptions of the settlement ("a crooked parenthesis of rocky shoreline") and the noirish presentation of the situation ("the sordid history of corruption, malfeasance, and unconstitutional skullduggery"), there's a great pulp thriller here, full of half-naked arctic escapes, deserted parking-lot shootouts, and intimidation from both the Mafia-like black-hat community and US government.
The story focuses around our anti-hero, Meyer Landsman, a self-medicating drinker who "has only two moods: working and dead." A decorated cop, yet a divorced man living in a squalid motel, he's by-the-book only if that book's an old-fashioned crime novel. He is, of course, the perfect protagonist for a writer like Chabon, who writes that "part of the policeman's job [is] to jerk back the pretty carpet that covers over the deep jagged hole in the floor." Well, Chabon's a master of beautiful prose, and his jagged, punchy dialogue is a real comedic device, so if anyone's equipped to tell this story, it's him.
When a neighbor of Meyer's turns up dead, it's a chess game that wakes up Meyer's besotted brain, and even though his ex-wife is now in charge of the department, even though his partner, a half-Indian named Berko Shemets, has three kids, and even though the Jews are about to undertake another exodus when Alaska reverts to local Tlingit control, he decides to ignore the orders for "effective resolution" (the closure of all open cases) and to go around the black flags of the department's cold cases to figure out the true story of his murdered neighbor. The various layers of the story have forebodings of the Messiah, miracles, and a plan to retake Israel, but it's not grounded in the supernatural conspiracy theories. The Yiddish Policeman's Union is very simply one unhinged detective's quest to carve out a little slice of life for himself, and though the book is filled with flashbacks to Meyer's scheming relatives (his Uncle Hertz, subverting his power as an FBI agent, so as to get Sitka residents permanent status) or chess-obsessed father, the story is a rapid adventure.
It's also a dose of culture: from Professor Zimbalists's role as the boundary maven of an artificial shtetl to the sinister Baronshteyn's role as a Verbover enforcer, right down to the descriptions of torpid rabbis ("a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running"), or the constant use of slang like noz, yid, or the inventive Shoyfer, now a substitute for cellphone. Despite this massive world-building and undefined vocabulary, the book is rather simple to suss out, a fact that due largely to the dialogue. Jocular and clever, it's filled with jokes and retorts as much as it is with interrogations, and confessions are relegated entirely to flashback chapters. For instance:
"Tuna salad," Landsman observes, thinking of how she stopped eating tuna when she found out she was pregnant with Django.Not only does this section subtly refer back to the dead baby that led to the divorce, but it creates a terse mood between them even while telling a joke. The entire book maintains the same rhythm, filling chasming silences with feeble but funny jokes and packing the descriptions with action and development. The Yiddish Policemen's Union is another example of what happens when a literary writer turns his hand to genre writing, only unlike John Banville's solipsistic and anti-climactic Christine Falls, Chabon has the experience and punch to deliver a satisfying read all the way to the fateful conclusion. The alternate history is a cop-out only in comparison to Kavalier & Clay, aside from that, it's just one more clever invention from a master storyteller.
"Yeah, I try to ingest as much mercury as I can," Bina says, reading the memory on his face. She swallows the enzyme tablet. "Mercury's kind of my thing nowadays."
Landsman jerks a thumb toward Mrs. Nemintziner, standing ready with her spoon.
"You ought to order the baked thermometer."
"I would," she says, "but they only had rectal."