May 2007

Melissa Albert


The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

In the way of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union gives a nightmarish alternate history of Jews in America. But unlike the characters in Roth’s novel, who bear desperate witness to the country’s slow slide into fascism, Chabon’s Jews are already wise to where they stand. Jaded and self-reliant, they knock out a lean existence in between the long arms of anti-Semitism and perpetual homelessness.

In Chabon’s present day, “Jerusalem is a city of blood and slogans painted on the wall, severed heads on telephone poles,” but it’s not the reclaimed homeland of the Jews. Instead, they were “tossed out of the joint… with savage finality in 1948,” and herded to an arbitrary stronghold: Sitka, a raw and inhospitable district of Alaska, where they’ve been sitting on a 60-year lease. After nearly six decades of hardscrabble living and uneasy peace with the Alaskan natives, they’re on the cusp of Reversion, when their land will pass back out of their hands.

While the Sitka Jews scramble to place themselves post-Reversion, somebody simplifies the future for a nameless junkie living in a Sitka flop. Registered under the handle of Emanuel Lasker (a famous Jewish chess player), he’s found with a bullet in his brain, shot through a pillow to kill the sound. Beside his body is a halted game of chess; among his spare belongings are a couple of chess books and the dusty effects of a formerly devout Jew.

The place is also the residence of Meyer Landsman, once a star homicide detective, now a disintegrating alcoholic on the edge of being let go. Though Landsman drinks and mouths off like a Chandler tough guy, he’s prone to crying jags and regret, frequently brought on by Bina, his ex-wife and current commanding officer. A freckled, pneumatic clutch of beloved idiosyncrasies, her every move recalls a moment from her and Landsman’s irrevocable past life.

Post-divorce, Landsman embarked on a binge of self-destruction and overwork, reluctantly trailed by his cousin and partner, Berko, a bear-size man, half-native Tlingit but all Jew. The junkie’s death speaks to Landsman’s decaying instincts, and the chess game beside the body catches his eye -- his father, a Holocaust survivor and eventual suicide, played chess with a passionate absorption, and though Landsman hates the game, he knows enough to recognize that the pieces are configured in a puzzling way.

The only game allowed on a Sitka Sabbath, chess is no less complex than the thin and bloody trail Landsman follows, in a haze of liquor, misery, and a growing roster of injuries, to find the junkie’s murderer. It’s a mystery that stretches from the flophouse to the back rooms and bathhouses of Sitka, all the way to the “navel of the world”: the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, where once “Isaac waited for his father to pry the muscle of life from his body.”

The novel dips into the slick idiom of hardboiled noir, but Chabon’s lines burst with life, with warmth and sly humor. He revels in the form but pokes holes in it too, peeking through the places where clean, taut detective fiction and messy, voluminous life part ways. And the genre is freshened by the milieu of Sitka -- an icy Semitic city, where Sabbath meals are eaten beneath the Northern lights and Jewish girls “sing Negro spirituals with Yiddish lyrics that paraphrase Lincoln and Marx.”

Eventually it emerges that the junkie was the wayward son of the Verbover rebbe. The Verbover Jews are the rock stars of Sitka, its orthodox mob. They’re spearheaded by the ponderous Rebbe Shpilman, an ominous mountain of flesh. Through secular string-pulling and violence the Verbovers seek redemption of the believers: believers in Messiah, in the salvation of the Jews, and in the righteous power of a pile of greenbacks. The rebbe’s mystical son was once at the center of their redemption plot; after he left the fold they resorted to more direct means of change.

To Landsman’s horror, pawns in the widening mystery emerge from the terrain of his own regrets: his sister, Naomi, a skilled pilot who crashed her plane into a mountainside on a clear day, and Berko’s father, Hertz, a onetime lawyer who championed Sitka’s cause until his practice was crushed by a backlog of corruption allegations. Landsman drags himself through an increasingly hopeless case, fueled by a half-baked death wish and an impossible love for his ex-wife.

Though elements of noir exist here, they’re wrapped into a rich portrayal of a broken man and his nearly extinct city. In lieu of Chicago overcoats and bad-luck dames, Chabon offers fine-tuned portrayals of damaged people, and the damage they inflict on the ones they love. His odd and wonderfully apt description of colors, scents, and sounds shock the system into seeing what he sees: a nervous informant has skin “as pale as a page of commentary”; a motorcycle engine’s rev has “the flatulence of a burst balloon streaking across the living room and knocking over a lamp.” Nobody reading this will miss the rote descriptions of femme fatales and scarred conmen that haunt the usual paperback thriller.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
ISBN 0007149824
411 pages