The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
By Michael Chabon
HarperCollins, 432 pages, $26.95.
On January 1, 2008, sovereignty over the Federal District of Sitka, the Jewish homeland in Alaska, “a crooked parenthesis of rocky shoreline running along the western edges of Baranof and Chichagof islands,” will revert to American control. When that happens, the Sitka District Police will be dissolved, and Jewish police officers, whose kind have been walking the beat in a Jewish state for 60 years — since their Godforsaken homeland was reluctantly created at the sufferance of the United States — may get thrown out of their jobs. “Nothing is clear about the upcoming Reversion,” Michael Chabon writes in his new novel, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” “and that is why these are strange times to be a Jew.”
These are even stranger times to be Meyer Landsman, the angry, atheistic, alcoholic Sitka cop who awakens in his flophouse to learn that an old junkie downstairs has been murdered; for it seems that if he doesn’t solve the case, nobody else will bother. These are, after all, the last days of a country with an expiration date. So the line comes up again and again, throughout the book: “These are strange times to be a Jew.” But in this new novel, it’s hard to pin down just which times are so strange. Is it the time of the noir universe of Sitka, Alaska, 2007 — or the time of the real world in 2007? Was 1948 the strange time? What about September 11, 2001? Are these times, any of these times, a joke, or are they deadly serious?
The answer to all of the above is “yes.” “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is all things to one people. It’s a noir homage; it’s a work of literary realism; it’s an allegory; it’s a very funny satire. It manages to be thematically Jewish — concerned with questions of religious observance, historical rootlessness and internecine battles over authority — while deftly moving among genres that wouldn’t ordinarily lend themselves to what is, in the end, just another story about some poor, defeated Jews. “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is a funny, sad, tough, totally compelling book, but above all, it is the least artistically parochial novel I have read in a long time. It positively disdains categories and generic boundaries.
It helps that the plot is absurd, in the old-fashioned, theatrical sense: The Jews lost the 1948 war, were expelled from Palestine and just barely persuaded Congress to give them this sliver of Alaska — but only for 60 years, which are almost up. In the homeland of Sitka, Yiddish is the language spoken. Much political power is wielded by the Verbover Hasidim, who look suspiciously like the Jews we real-worlders know as Lubavitchers. They even bury their dead in the Montefiore cemetery, certainly named after the rebbe’s resting place in Queens. And there are displaced Indians, in whom real-world Palestinian refugees might see kindred spirits. There’s the murdered man, a former chess wiz who may be the messiah, but shoots heroin by tying off his arm with the leather strap from his tefillin. And there’s the police duo of Landsman and his cousin, Berko Shemets, the faithless bachelor and the devout family man, who, with help from Landsman’s ex-wife, über-cop Bina Gelbfish, just may break the case before the Jews are expelled from Sitka by evangelical Christian Americans hopped up on post-9/11 apocalyptic schemes. But to prevail, they need all their combined knowledge of chess problems and the messianic promise of a red heifer.
The story is not as taut and perfectly achieved as Chabon’s greatest work, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.” Of course, that’s a high bar, and Chabon fails only by the standards he has set. Given all the ingredients Chabon has thrown in, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” could have been a terribly confused work, some sort of potboiled mélange of Philip Roth and Philip K. Dick; instead, it’s a tasty read, engrossing and audacious. The man never writes a bad sentence. But the book loses energy as it goes along — it’s never better than in the first 50 pages — and the ending is confusing enough that I’d have to read the whole book again to figure out for sure how Landsman and Shemets solve the crime. Reading the novel from start to finish is a little like taking a joyride in a hotrod only to arrive at a lame party.
But why miss the joyride? “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is an admirably ambitious, and beautiful, work of literature. Chabon is an avatar of straightforward, old-fashioned, pulpy plotting, so it may pain him to read this, but he has become a novelist of ideas and language, a writer for whom plot is a mere necessity. Part of him wants to be John Irving, and that would be grand enough, but what we have here is a writer who could soon be as great as Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Milan Kundera. He’s not in their league yet, but if he keeps writing books this good, he’ll be called up any day.
The language of “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” is some new fusion; call it Jewish noir. “Night is an orange smear over Sitka, a compound of fog and the light of sodium-vapor street lamps. It has the translucence of onions cooked in chicken fat.” “Landsman stops for a red at NW Twenty-eighth Street. Outside a corner store, by a study hall, Torah bachelors loiter, Scripture grifters, unmatchable luftmensches and garden-variety hoodlums.” “Around the grave site, black clumps of fir trees sway like grieving Chasids.”
What’s remarkable about these sentences is not just their tone, at once gritty and gorgeous and lovesick for something lost. With their dark, melancholy reverb, they turn noir into a vehicle for ideas. For what is noir but the world-weary perspective, the diction of the man who’s been around the block too many times and doesn’t expect to see anything new? Considering how perfectly that describes the Jew, it’s strange that we haven’t seen Jewish noir until now (or perhaps there is Jewish noir, but if so then it’s strangely obscure). It turns out that an old American rhythm — Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler, a little Patricia Highsmith — is just right for socking us with an Old World truth: “Change your country, but nothing will change,” it says to the Jews. “New dames, same old troubles. You can run but you can’t hide. You can’t change your stripes. Nobody ever does.” It’s the same forbidding thought explored by Philip Roth in “The Plot Against America” (another killer book), and the language here makes him one hell of a salesman.
In the real world, Jews don’t go in for being cops or private eyes. And in most countries at most times in history, they wouldn’t be trusted with the badge. But in Sitka, the Jews have to be everything. It’s here, not in the Promised Land, that the Jews will realize the old Zionist dream of a land where Jewish cops arrest Jewish prostitutes. In Sitka, as in real-world Israel, there’s pride and shame to go around; Sitka, in fact, appears to have much more to regret than to trumpet. But that’s not how Chabon sees it. He’s interested — and this is a central theme of the novel, though most readers today will miss it — in the road not taken. A hundred years ago, Zionists were by no means settled on the question of what language would be spoken in Palestine once the Jews finally got it back. German was a likely possibility. English, too. Right after World War II, there were many who assumed that Yiddish, not Hebrew, would be the national language of Israel. After all, people actually spoke Yiddish. And if Yiddish had won, Israel would be a different place today. More like Sitka, perhaps.
Because, as all writers fiercely believe, language is everything. If the Jewish homeland were Yiddish speaking, maybe it would be Yiddish feeling. Maybe we Jews would never have saddled ourselves with the archetype of the macho sabra, the Ari Ben Canaan as played by Paul Newman. Maybe we would grow old and the men would spend their widower years playing chess in the Einstein Chess Club, as they do in Sitka. Maybe the Jews in their homeland would feel a kinship with the old prewar Jewish literature of Stefan Zweig and Kafka. Maybe they would have decided to keep bearing up under the weight of their alienation, instead of shucking it and remaking themselves as warriors. This big what if, the what if of a Jewish homeland that was Yiddish and rooted in history, rather than Hebrew and determined to abandon the past, is achingly present in “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.” Chabon is too strong a writer to be mawkish about the road not taken, but it’s clearly on his mind, as when he describes Landsman overhearing spoken Hebrew:
It sounded to him like the Hebrew brought over by the Zionists after 1948. Those hard desert Jews tried fiercely to hold on to it in their exile but, as with the German Jews before them, got overwhelmed by the teeming tumult of Yiddish, and by the painful association of their language with recent failure and disaster. As far as Landsman knows, that kind of Hebrew is extinct except among a few last holdouts meeting annually in lonely halls.
So Hebrew is the Yiddish of Sitka. Yiddish, meanwhile, is the English, and it’s street English. Yids — that is to say, Jews — refer to fellow unfortunates as “yids,” much as real-world American blacks casually toss off “nigga.” And a cop who cracks down on a yid is a “shammes,” which is Chabon’s Yiddish spelling of a “shamus,” an American word for a private eye that philologists think is derived from — believe it — “shammes,” the Yiddish word for a synagogue sexton. Both a shamus and a shammes, you see, have to clean up the dreck.
Again, most readers won’t quite get it, but fortunately this novel offers its fun in 18 different flavors. The WASPs get their ribbing “thanks to a recent vogue for crafting given names from family names,” Berko Shemets’s son “is Feingold Taytsh-Shemets. They call him Goldy.” Classical-music buffs, as well as Jews, will be pleased to learn that one Zigmund Landau is “the Heifetz of Informers.” New Yorkers of all faiths will smile upon reading that the Shemets boys in bed exhibit “a blatting of inner valves that would shame the grand pipe organ of Temple Emanu-El.” And it’s hard to know who will be more pleased, Jews or Canadians, to learn that in Sitka they wear sweatshirts from Bronfman U.
My friend and former editor Paul Elie, author of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), once shared with me his theory on Chabon’s last big book: “‘Kavalier & Clay’ was a brilliant end-run around the titans of Jewish fiction,” like Bellow and Philip Roth. “He went back to an era before the one they wrote about, and then he wrote about popular culture, something they didn’t know much about.” It was an inspired way to defeat the anxiety of influence, Elie said, which for “a Jewish American author must be tremendous.” Chabon is not just a great Jewish writer, he’s a great American writer, too. But Elie is right to place him in the context of older Jewish writers; to do otherwise would be to miss an aspect of his brilliance. Early Chabon novels such as “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” and “Wonder Boys” have Jewish or part-Jewish characters, but with this novel, Chabon has joined the community of Jewish Jewish writers at the moment of its renewed efflorescence. And he has joined their company very much his own man, a literary original.
I’d only add that while Chabon’s infusion of lowbrow, pop-culture verve does lend his fiction a dimension missing from, say, Bellow, Chabon has artistic ancestors in the tradition, and at least one of them is alive. The unjustly neglected short-story master Steve Stern writes scenes of Jewish lowlife carrying a flavor of cultural Yiddishkeit that would be recognizable in Sitka. So, too, did the great Malamud. Stern may never get famous enough to be forgotten; Malamud is slowly being forgotten. Theirs is a deeply unfashionable literature of Jews who know nothing of the Israeli army or The New York Review of Books, are neither intellectuals nor big-shots. They may play a game of chess now and again, and they like the funny pages. Chabon is taking a picture of this world, another snapshot of a fading way to be Jewish. At times, Landsman and Shemets feel a bit like stock characters; and when they do, Chabon’s ideas take a back seat to his punch lines. But in the end I recognize Landsman as a landsman, someone from where I’m from. It’s just that I, as an American of the real world, have more to lose. For as Chabon writes of his hero, who is considering how reckless to be with his life:
Landsman considers the things that remain his to lose: a porkpie hat. A travel chess set and a Polaroid picture of a dead messiah. A boundary map of Sitka, profane, ad hoc, encyclopedic, crime scenes and low dives and chokeberry brambles, printed on the tangles of his brain. Winter fog that blankets the heart, summer afternoons that stretch endless as arguments among Jews.
Next week: Mark Oppenheimer has a look at this season’s other headline offering of Jewish fiction, “The Ministry of Special Cases” (Knopf), a new novel by Nathan Englander.
Mark Oppenheimer is a writer and editor who lives in New Haven, Conn.