Apr/May 2007

Northern Enclosure

Michael Chabon’s novel posits a Jewish homeland in Alaska

Benjamin Anastas


"My worst nightmare was a boring nightmare," Art Bechstein tells us in Michael Chabon's first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, published to rapturous acclaim in the distant year of 1988, "the dream of visiting an empty place where nothing happened, with awful slowness." Bechstein, a dreamer in the tradition of both Neil Klugman (the lustful protagonist of Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus) and F. Scott Fitzgerald's more platonic Jay Gatz, was describing his job at Boardwalk Books, the store where his imagination took a breather in between adventures. "The job had no claim upon me," Bechstein goes on to say (in that single upon lies the posturing of a young man in all its transparent poignancy), and neither did Chabon seem overly concerned with the strictures of literary convention. His language was unerringly exuberant, in brave defiance of the minimalism that ruled the day; the tenderly drawn father—a staple of the coming-of-age novel—is the notorious gangster Joe "the Egg" Bechstein; Art, the protagonist, is at once straight and perfectly gay; this carefully crafted novel of self-awakening ends with a tragic helicopter chase.

Chabon is in the entertainment business, and he has been ever since a pair of commas shoehorned the gangster into the opening sentence of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. ("At the beginning of the summer I had lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the weekend to transact some of his vague business.") Whether it's inserting a MacGuffin—Marilyn Monroe's jacket—into the plot of Wonder Boys (1995) or relying on the buoyancy of comic books to propel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) or pitting a retired and supernaturally attuned detective against the problem of the Holocaust, personified—if I may take a liberty—by a German-speaking parrot, in The Final Solution: A Story of Detection (2004), Chabon's interest in the popular conventions of storytelling has been remarkably consistent. Twenty years after Mysteries made the genre grab legitimate, this admirable experiment has been codified into a full-fledged literary movement, complete with anthologies from McSweeney's (two edited by Chabon), a herald (Jonathan Lethem), and acolytes both minor and major. If Art Bechstein could return to the bookstore today, he might just forgo the adventures outside and curl up with a thrilling paperback instead.

The founding director of MightyLit Inc. is back with what is being billed as his "first full-length adult novel" since Kavalier and Clay. The Yiddish Policemen's Union is many things at once: a work of alternate history, a medium-boiled detective story, an exploration of the conundrum of Jewish identity, a meditation on the Zionist experiment, the apotheosis thus far of one writer's influential sensibility. The novel boasts a large and colorful cast of Yiddish-speaking detectives (one who's half-Tlingit, half-Jewish), a chess-playing junkie who may or may not be the Tzaddik Ha-Dor, or the Jewish Messiah, a dog named Hershel, the red heifer from biblical prophecy, a nefarious drug-rehabilitation center, and a plot to destroy the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The book is at various times an elaborate joke, a slow-building marvel, a tear-inducing revelation, and an unwieldy bore, and it will find such a large and enthusiastic reading public that—let's be honest—a review is almost beside the point. Why go on? Fershtay?

Nu. On with the plot summary.

Like most works of speculative history, including Roth's The Plot Against America (more on this parallel later), The Yiddish Policemen's Union takes its inspiration from a grain of truth. In 1939, with the world facing a Jewish refugee crisis and countries enforcing strict quotas on entry, the US secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes, floated a short-lived plan to develop Alaska by opening it to thousands of European Jews. Private philanthropists were to foot the construction bill, but resistance from Alaskans killed this notion of a snowy Zion long before it threatened to become real. Enter our author. The time: present day, with an administration in the White House friendly to Christian interests and a president conspicuous for his "cleft chin, his golfer's tan, his air of self-importance, worn lightly, quarterback-style." The Holy Land is a "wretched place ruled by men united only in their resolve to keep out all but a worn fistful of small-change Jews." The Federal District of Sitka—an Alaskan hatzeplatz ghettoized by years of infighting, neglect, and tensions with the local Tlingit—is the Yiddish-speaking homeland of the Jewish people, dotted with residency hotels, the Big Macher chain of outlet stores, chess clubs, an enclave for the shadowy "black hats," and a panoply of dives where you can find "a decent pickle." But even this poor excuse for a homeland comes with an expiration date—the state of Alaska wants its land back, and once the "Reversion" is official on January 1, Sitka's Jews will have to pull up stakes and go wandering again. Thus the novel's hard-bitten refrain: "These are strange times to be a Jew."

If this sounds like the perfect setting for a hauntingly off-kilter meditation on the Jewish diaspora—something that a visionary follower of the great Karel Capek might have serialized in the Jewish Daily Forward in the '30s—that's because it is. Or rather: becomes after a shaky beginning. "The wind carries a sour tang of pulped lumber," Chabon waxes in the novel's opening pages, "the smell of boat diesel and the slaughter and canning of salmon." There is something too dutiful about the accretion of local detail (lumber, diesel, salmon—check), and for the novel's first seventy-five pages or so, Sitka remains a kind of Potemkin village to domesticate the novel's real ambition—to immerse us, toes-deep, in what is essentially an intricate and far-reaching police procedural. With a Yiddish accent. Detective Meyer Landsman is counting down the days before his badge is bubkes; missing his ex-wife, Bina Gelbfish; and dreaming of a union with a Filipino-style Chinese donut ("the great contribution of the District of Sitka to the food lovers of the world"), when a heroin addict using the alias Emanuel Lasker—the Jewish chess champion—turns up dead in the Hotel Zamenhof. Like an episode of Law & Order scripted by an underground Israeli comedy troupe, Landsman's investigation, undertaken with his partner, Berko Shemets—otherwise known as Johnny "the Jew" Bear—will bring him into conflict with everyone from the powerful and gargantuan Rabbi Heskel Shpilman ("a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert") to the motorcycle-riding Tlingit avenger Inspector Willie Dick to his ex-wife, also a detective, reassigned to Sitka Central with the job of closing all remaining cases.

Why a Yiddish detective story? For the novelty? To capitalize on current modes of Jewish self-definition? I suspect that Chabon, with his finely tuned antennae for the uses of language, was after an idiom for his novel that would ignite the pleasure of recognition and imply a deeper story, at the same time, about dislocation and the Jewish awareness of the absurd. There are moments in the book, particularly between Landsman and Bina (no fair-minded critic would reveal more), when the combination of terse detective's English and Yiddish achieves the ring of poetry. Too often, though, despite the publisher's claim that The Yiddish Policemen's Union is an "adult novel," I had the funny feeling that I was trapped in a gritty wonderland invented for children. Call me a writer from the analog era, nostalgic for a time when the genres eyed one another warily across the room instead of meeting and mingling in the hardcover nook—but let's admit that all storytelling conventions are not created equal. To pretend they are is to create not a mix, but a muddle; marrying two narrative ambitions creates two sets of appetites—not one—and a succession of saccharine amuse-bouches can undermine a hearty meal.

"Fuck what is written," Landsman says to an American agent, Cashdollar, sent to thwart his investigation before it reaches its logical end. "You know what? . . . I don't care what is written. I don't care what supposedly got promised to some sandal-wearing idiot whose claim to fame is that he was ready to cut his own son's throat for the sake of a harebrained idea. I don't care about red heifers and patriarchs and locusts. A bunch of old bones in the sand. My homeland is in my hat. It's in my ex-wife's tote bag." The detective's conviction, at this late moment in the novel, is wholly compelling and entirely earned, both in its rage at the distorting fictions of religious extremism and in its faith in forms of consolation here on earth. Unlike Roth, who has made the specious claim that his alternate history of America has nothing to do with our present-day politicking, Chabon's Yiddish Policemen's Union wears its relevance on its sleeve—and achieves a rare authority because of it. And that, bubbala, is called literature. As for the excesses, evasions, and blind alleys of the detective story, what is there to say? Chabon has always turned to popular forms of storytelling when it suits his fiction, only this time his pursuit of genre-based thrills got the best of him.

Benjamin Anastas was a Lannan Foundation writer-in-residence in Marfa, Texas, during the fall of 2006.

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