Of course the Jewish State is set up elsewhere. But people still wonder what if. “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is Michael Chabon’s 400 page exploration through the question, what if. What if the Jewish State was set up in Alaska, specifically Sitka Alaska. What if Sitka was now a metropolis with 3.2 million people, with families in their second generation, and an underground crime world.
Chabon (pronounced Shay-bon) became an international figure at 25, when his novel about college, “The Mysteries of Pittsburg,” became a bestseller. Nearly a dozen years later, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” won the Pulitzer Prize.
Inspector Meyer Landsman is a classic film noir character: nonchalant, alcoholic, pessimistic, recently divorced—tough on the outside, soft on the inside.
The story begins with the murder of a man staying in the same shady hotel as Landsman. The ‘yid,’ who checked in under the alias Emanuel Lasker was found shot in the back of the head in the middle of a chess game. Chess is a metaphor on several levels, and Chabon uses it comment on everything from the human condition to pastry preferences.
With his partner Berko Shemets, Landsman connects Lasker to Verbover Island, home of a group of very orthodox Jews and an underground crime ring. Here they gain their first major clue:
“We are taught by the Baal Shem Tov, of blessed memory, that a man with the potential to be Messiah is born into every generation. This is the Tzaddik Ha-Dor. Now, Mendel.”
Mendel Shpilman, they learn, was a wonder boy. His IQ was 170. He mastered eight languages by the age of 9. But somehow in adulthood, Mendel became a heroin addict, among other things. The rest of the novel retraces his steps to not only solve a homicide case but also detail what social events can make someone holy so distraught.
Despite winning a Pulitzer, Chabon is not a literary snob. He doesn’t shy away from second person, enjoys sci-fi and comics. He shows no anger when his books become lackluster films.
“A book being an adventure story, in theory anyway, shouldn’t be incompatible with its having more serious thematic concerns,” Chabon said on NPR’s “All Things Considered”.
Chabon has a fantastic ability to pair random objects with characters that create a space that you simply will never encounter in daily life.
“Rabbi Heskel Shpilman is a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running,” Chabon writes.
Elsewhere he describes someone as a fist. His descriptions are so abstract yet concrete; the result is a pleasant imbalance. He pairs colors with situations that imply the whole scene without (surprisingly) using any words: “He wipes a streak of brown mustard from his lips with a napkin.” Elsewhere, there is black milk.
Chabon does enjoy some exotic words that may prove frustrating to readers. He said that made a concerted effort to use shorter sentences, but he didn’t apply the same treatment toward the plot, which after awhile, may seem like a string of compound phrases. But the short sentences really facilitate reading, and as Alaskans, we’re already cued into the many allusions that others could trip over: Yakutat, Tlingit, and Anthony Dimond.
Chabon did spend time in Sitka, and it shows in his descriptions. “A white van pulls in, a bright mask of snow on its windshield…The snow is falling like pieces of broken daylight…the footprints in the snow have become shallow as an angel’s.”
It’s not just pretty descriptions. There is plenty food for thought. Many characters, particularly the shady ones, prefer paradoxes: “Every messiah fails the moment he tries to redeem himself.”
The entire mystery is solved in a single sentence near the end. That litotes is effective, but doesn’t let you indulge in the surprise, like most detective novels. Union is a detective novel, but unlike the generic paperback, it stands out as something much, much more.