THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION
By Michael Chabon
HarperCollins, 414 pages, $26.95
I’m not wild about hardboiled detective fiction. Raymond Chandler may paint a gritty world of hard-luck women, cigarettes and booze, but I still think he’s a lousy writer. Right now, perhaps because it’s spring, the word “hardboiled” calls to mind the eggs dipped in salt water at Pesach—an image with little sex appeal.
Michael Chabon’s new book, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, is definitely a detective story: semi-hardboiled, semi–police procedural, and making liberal use of typical features of both genres, such as suspenders and fedoras, sawed-off guns, curling smoke, Detroit muscle, wiseguys, a down-on-his-luck cop, and a crime that—if he solves it—might redeem him. Yet Mr. Chabon does for all of these what he did for 1930’s comic books in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay—idolizes, ironizes and gently lampoons them, making them larger than life, fascinating and once again fresh.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union takes place in an alternate present in which the state of Israel failed to thrive in Palestine. In the novel’s world, the Israeli experiment tanked in 1948, and the 1939 plan proposed by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes—to settle displaced European Jews in Alaska—actually came to pass. But on Jan. 1, 2008, the Federal District of Sitka will revert to U.S. rule. So the situation of the Sitka Jews in 2007 mirrors that of Jews at many times throughout the Diaspora: They consider the place they inhabit their home, but in fact are sojourners whose hosts might easily turn hostile.
Meyer Landsman is a Sitka homicide detective. Since divorcing his wife, Bina—who has now, by a twist of fate, become his commanding officer—he’s lived at the fleabag Hotel Zamenhof. The novel begins when the night manager discovers that the tenant in 208, a heroin addict who’s been calling himself Emanuel Lasker after the great Jewish chess hero, has been murdered. Because the murder happened in his own hotel, and because he has a lifelong aversion to chess (thanks to his father, a Holocaust survivor and chess player who forced the game on his son and later killed himself), Landsman gets involved in the case, despite the fact that, when the Sitka police force is remanded to the United States, all its open files will be marked “closed.” The addict turns out to have been Mendel Shpilman, the holy son of the powerful Verbover rebbe, a hulking titan of shady business interests. Landsman and his partner, the observant and half-Tlingit Berko Shemets, and Bina thus get involved in an investigation that takes them deep into corrupt Verbover territory, the Indianer lands, the story of Landsman’s sister’s mysterious death, and an international black-hat conspiracy so vast, sinister and believable, it puts The Da Vinci Code to shame.
Some of the pleasures of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union are, actually, distinctly Dan Brown–ish. Mr. Chabon often ends chapters with cliffhangers that might be tiresome in the hands of a lesser writer (say, Dan Brown). Here, they’re over-the-top suspenseful, savory and delicious.
Other pleasures echo Rich Cohen’s Tough Jews. American Ashkenazim today are, by and large, so middle-class and well educated that there’s a giddy humor in thinking of Jews as shtarkers and thugs. (I assume Mr. Chabon named Meyer Landsman after the gangster Meyer Lansky; and you’ve got to love that the toughest guys on Brooklyn’s streets were once “Buggsy” Goldstein, “Pretty” Levine and Mendy Weiss.) It’s just funny for Landsman to call his “chopped Smith & Wesson Model 39” his sholem; for a cop to be called a shammes, normally the word for the caretaker of a synagogue; for the rookie cops to be named Tabatchnik and, of all things, Karpas, the green vegetable on the Seder plate.
In a wonderful moment of sacrilege, Mendel Shpilman uses the leather straps of his tefillin to tie off when he shoots up. Bina carries a huge tote bag, filled with everything a person could need in case of emergency. The narrator remarks, “A mere redrawing of borders, a change in governments, those things can never faze a Jewess with a good supply of hand wipes in her bag.” This is partly funny because it’s absurd; but as a Jewess who wouldn’t leave the house without a stash of Tylenol, safety pins and mints, I can tell you he’s also absolutely correct.
At a deeper level, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union asks serious questions about Jewish identity. At every turn, Mr. Chabon explores what it means to be part of the Diaspora, to try to understand other people’s beliefs and practices. Berko—whose mother was the Indian, which means that by Orthodox standards he isn’t Jewish—wears tzitzit, but admits that he does this to earn the approval of his deadbeat father, who is himself unobservant. Landsman, like many unaffiliated Jews, feels complex emotions toward the Orthodox: “The truth is, black-hat Jews make Landsman angry, and they always have. He finds that it is a pleasurable anger, rich with layers of envy, condescension, resentment, and pity.”
Much of the plot hinges on the arcane knowledge of Itzik Zimbalist, “the boundary maven” who patrols Sitka’s eruvim. (An eruv is what Mr. Chabon calls, balls out, “a typical Jewish ritual dodge, a scam run on God, that controlling motherfucker”: a string tied around a neighborhood, defining it metaphorically as one interior space, so that people can carry things around on Shabbat. Manhattan has an eruv around the entire Upper West Side.) All this Yiddishkeit is immensely interesting, and its complexity deepens as the book progresses. By the novel’s end, Mr. Chabon is questioning both Zionism and what it means for an individual Jew to stand under a chuppah, with such a wealth of plot and character behind him that these questions may make even the most jaded reader of detective fiction kvell.
As I was preparing to write this review, the sad news came that Kurt Vonnegut had died. Like many writers and readers, I idolized him in my youth, and I think Michael Chabon may have, too—his syncretic imagination seems indebted to the universe of Kilgore Trout and Rabo Karabekian. How fitting, then, for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union to appear now, to carry forward the torch of loopy-but-serious genre-bending. And I’m grateful that Mr. Chabon has drawn the line from hardboiled detective fiction to the Seder table; for me, at least, it’s opened up a new appreciation for both the genre and the eggs.
Emily Barton’s novel Brookland was recently published in paperback by Picador.