October 21, 2009

Tales from the Completist: "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," by Michael Chabon

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, I find myself sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon

The Yiddish Policemen's Union
By Michael Chabon
HarperCollins/ ISBN: 978-0-00714-982-7

Is Michael Chabon possibly our nation's greatest living writer? Oh, wait, I already know the answer to that rhetorical question -- yes, yes he is. And that's because, more than almost anyone else working today, Chabon has the ability to elegantly enfold the elements of literature most revered by academes with the elements most sought by the beach-and-airport crowd -- or in other words, he is able to find a magically perfect balance in his books between an exciting plot, deep character development, and a sophisticated personal style, and by "magically perfect" I mean that it's almost impossible to determine how exactly he pulls it off, even when you're sitting there actually reading the book in question. And so it is that Chabon is one of the few authors in America right now to have novels that regularly receive prestigious award nominations (and in fact even a Pulitzer win once, for 2000's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) even while being hugely popular bestsellers at the same time.

Take for example 2006's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, which I recently got a chance to read through the new "Netflix for books" service BookSwim.com (from whom I recently received a complimentary two-month membership, in exchange for writing about my experience here after it's over; that write-up will be coming in early December), a book so insanely popular that I've been searching for vain for a spare copy within the Chicago Public Library system for two entire years now. And that's ironic, because the book is in actuality a science-fictiony "alternate history" tale, and in fact is one of the few books in history to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards in the same year, the two most prestigious awards in SF and with highly competitive committees that are loathe to give it to the same book -- turns out that in Chabon's fictional universe, World War Two wasn't actually won until 1946, a much harder fight than what happened in real life (in his version, for example, Germany actually beats the Soviet Union), and that only ended after the US dropping a series of atomic bombs on Berlin. As a result, then, the very real Jewish experiment in establishing a unified Israeli nation in those same years was in his universe a dismal failure, due to the US's backing military support being so diverted by the war; prompted by liberals in Congress, then, as a conciliatory gesture the US establishes a new federal district in a large stretch of southern Alaska just for Jewish refugees (something actually contemplated in real life, which was the main inspiration behind this entire book), which over the decades swells into a major metropolitan area of over three million, comprising Jews from all over the world and of every persuasion, from mystics to militants and everything in between.

Whew, yeah, I know! And in fact, apart from the actual storyline itself, a major reason for this book existing is simply for Chabon to create a convincingly complex history for this "Sitka" that never was, using the incidental passages of this 400-page novel to leak out a massively complicated timeline: from the first generation of Mid-Century Modernist "Polar Bear" settlers, promised a fertile farmland paradise by Interior Secretary Harold Ickes as an enticement to move there in the first place, just to discover upon arriving a half-frozen wasteland and hostile Indian natives; to the World's Fair the district hosts in 1977, considered by most to be Sitka's cultural height; to the establishment of the "Jewish mafia," a particularly hardass clan of rural Russians known as the Verbovers (or slangily as simply "the black hats"), almost extinguished as an ethnic group during the war and with them never forgetting this fact; al the way up to the early 2000s of our story, with Chabon presenting us a crumbling, past-its-prime Sitka, just waiting out its last few months before officially reverting back to Alaskan territory (and with all three million residents getting kicked out at that point, and with no one quite sure where they're all going to go), with more and more of these soon-to-be exiles turning these days into trigger-happy Zionists, convinced that the Great Reversion of 2008 is a sign from God that it's time for them to march right back into the Holy Land and try taking over Jerusalem again, whether the Muslims currently there f-cking like it or not.

And let's face it, that just this alone would've made for a fine book, although one probably with only a limited appeal among mere genre enthusiasts, but this is where Chabon is truly brilliant -- because in reality, everything I've just described serves as background dressing only to the murder mystery making up the actual main plotline of The Yiddish Policemen's Union. And not just any murder mystery either, but a noir murder mystery, full of wisecracking alcoholic detectives and tough-as-nails dames, dangerously close-lipped gangsters and all the rest; in fact, Chabon has gone on record in the past about this, confessing that he meant this novel to partly be an homage to such pulp-fiction writers as Raymond Chandler and the like. And the reason this is brilliant is because an environment like this surprisingly turns out to be perfect for telling a noirish pulp-fiction story; because believe me, you've never heard sparkling rat-a-tat dialogue until you've heard it from the mouths of a couple of bitter, Yiddish-speaking Jews. It's the element that really earns Chabon his chops, and what elevates him way past the usual genre author; because while most writers would be exhausted merely from the effort of putting together this fantastically original and complex history of a frozen Holy Land tucked away in the Arctic Circle, Chabon himself essentially starts over from scratch at this point and instead asks, "Okay, now what can I actually do with this environment I've created?"

And this isn't even the end of the inventiveness; because on top of everything else, the book turns out to have a political message too, with George Bush in Chabon's made-up universe still managing to be President in the early 2000s, despite the fantastically fictional half-century of alternative history that precedes him. Although I won't reveal any of the actual plot developments regarding the last half of the novel, let's just say that it's important to the story that Bush is President, and that by its end The Yiddish Policemen's Union turns out to be yet another early-2000s scathing indictment of the neo-fascist, superstition-obsessed times we all lived through back then; and in fact, the ending of this book is not going to be very well received either by hardline Israelis and other militant Zionists, a surprising element in a novel where nearly every single character is Jewish.

Any of these elements on their own are just fine, and alone would make for a perfectly serviceable if not eventually forgettable book; combine them all into one tale, though, and you suddenly have an explosive game-changer that will literally blow your head right off your freaking neck. This is the power of Michael Chabon, and why more and more people each year are going absolutely nuts for his work; and I admit, now that I've read three of his novels myself (the other two being the aforementioned Kavalier & Clay and his early hit Wonder Boys, adapted in 2000 by Curtis Hanson into an equally great movie starring Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire), I too am rapidly becoming one of these Chabon fanatics, and am even thinking now of reading his new book of essays regarding the struggle among perpetual-childhood Gen-X males to grow up (Manhood for Amateurs), even though the very subject usually makes me want to claw out my own f-cking eyes. As you can tell, The Yiddish Policemen's Union comes with a giant recommendation today, and now stands in my eyes as easily one of the top ten post-9/11 novels so far in history.

Read even more about The Yiddish Policemen's Union: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:26 PM, October 21, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |