Reading Michael Chabon inevitably leaves me with my skin tingling, my senses rapacious and my soul restless with a passionate and earnest urgency to be awake in the world. I can’t underscore the vibrant hot-bloodedness of his work enough. I haul the most tawdry hyperbole out of the cellar that I can find, and it is lacking. My shriveled black heart blooms and mutates in his work. I have trouble looking people in the eye afterward because I am vulnerable and teary, a naked and painful love-creature bounding, swollen with both jubilation and melancholy. I don’t normally try and articulate the wonder of his work; I just give people his books, like a dime store apostle.
People familiar with Chabon will know that he is a shameless lover of genre fiction and has an alchemist’s skill for twisting and blending supposed low-brow conventions into penetrating art. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is an alternate history that speculates on an outcome of WWII and an Israeli war that results in a 60 year interim Jewish state in Alaska. The story takes place in the waning days of the Sitka Jewish state. 2 million citizens are paralyzed with anxiety over what is to become of them and it is a credit to Chabon’s story-telling that it takes over a hundred pages of embedding the reader into this world to truly reveal the fear. In this world, the Jews are not welcome anywhere. Mirroring actual histories, they are being evicted, without any options for where to go. The theme of being forced into action, but with no good choices to make is reflected in layer after layer of the actual story, a motif that frames the story in the chess conundrum of zugzwang .
In this fully realized world, Chabon delivers a hardboiled noir of a mystery that comfortably stands shoulder to shoulder with Chandler, Hammett, Cain and Jim Thompson. In true Chabon fashion, the mystery is a love letter to the genre and Chabon uses it to explore the rich themes that always flow through his work: love, family, father son relationships, identity, loss, grief, endurance, guilt, redemption.
We meet Meyer Landsman, a depressed, drunk, down-at-the-heel police detective who wants nothing more than to disappear into a black hole after his marriage implodes over a pre-natal tragedy (another zugzwang in the story). Unfortunately, a junky is murdered down the hall from him and the hollow empty death takes hold of Landsman and won’t let go. Soon it becomes apparent that the murder is a single loose end in something far larger, as the case is buried and closed, from the highest orders. Like Marlowe, or the Continental Op, this sets Landsman on an obsessed course to find the truth no matter what is uncovered and no matter the lumps he takes. It’s a pitch perfect story in this regard: the seemingly isolated crime, the hints of wealth and power being tied to the crime, the exhausting labyrinth that becomes more dangerous and more futile at every turn, the improbably large conspiracy revealed by the dogged obsession of the detective. Chabon braids politics, organized crime and Jewish mythology into an audacious almost hammy story that successfully juxtaposes pathos with almost keystone kop silliness.
Like any good potboiler, the story, despite being vast, is actually a claustrophobic embroilment of several interwoven families and their secret violent histories. The protagonist and the murder are catalyst for everything to unravel.
If it was only a noir, it would be a great noir. If it was only a literary journey through the painful hearts of marriages, families and communities it would be a great literary journey. If it was only a subtle and nuanced exploration of a speculative alternate history providing insight into the real world and its history, it would excel on that front too. But Chabon sets the bar high, and goes for the trifecta and achieves it.
The other thing that needs mentioning (unless you’ve read anything by Chabon) is his virtuoso opera of language. Chabon’s gift of language requires lusty, athletic, blood streaked metaphors to describe. It’s punk, not chamber music; it’s a cage match not fencing, it’s needy primal fucking, not lovemaking. In any lesser hand, Chabon’s brand of extravagant verbosity and punch drunk metaphors would be shameless purple prose, but he has an inner wizardry that transcends the rules and even the most jaded reader can’t help but become ecstatic.
Stop reading this review, go read the book!