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The Yiddish Policemen's Union
By Michael Chabon
432 pages; $26.95
Three years ago, Michael Chabon delivered a knock on the chin of literary readers who turned up their nose at mysteries and thrillers.
"In spite of the continuing disdain or neglect in which most of the non-literary genres are held," Chabon wrote, "many if not most of the most interesting writers of the past 75 years found themselves drawn, inexorably, to the borderlands."
Since 2000, Chabon hasn't just aired these opinions - he has demonstrated how it's done in his own work. He started with his Pulitzer Prize winner, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a literary novel inspired by comics; then came a fantasy novel for young adults (Summerland). Most recently he published a novella that drew upon the suspense stories of Arthur Conan Doyle (The Final Solution).
Now with The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Chabon has taken an abrupt turn down the dark, slick alleyway of the noir, but with a twist. In Chabon's world, the homeland of the Jews is not Israel, but the Alaskan panhandle, where all the drug dealing, people smuggling and numbers running is controlled by the "black hats" (or haredim).
As the book begins, all of the Jews on the panhandle are about to lose their homeland. Meyer Landsman, a 42-year-old sozzled Yiddish cop, isn't about to let that stop him from solving one last case. "These are strange times to be a Jew," says the night watchman at a flophouse where the body of a heroin-addicted chess prodigy turns up, "no doubt about it."
The same could be said today. With dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians stalled yet again, 40 years after the Six Day War, the questions of homeland are as anguished and complicated as ever.
In this light, it is an enormous relief to discover that The Yiddish Policemen's Union isn't some veiled political argument about this situation - as The New York Post tried to insinuate in advance of the novel's publication - but a rich, terrifically funny and sad novel about the pain of exile, personal and spiritual.
Indeed, the biggest reinvention of The Yiddish Policemen's Union has little do with American history, and everything to do with the noir - which since its inception has been as secular a landscape as one can find in the already pretty secular American novel.
Here is a noir however which doesn't take God's death for granted. In fact, everywhere that Landsman and his half-Tlingit, half-Jewish partner go in the grim, gray-lit expanse of Alaskan tundra, they find people who believe.
For starters, there's the deceased's neighborhood in Sitka, where the pair are greeted with nu, or well, now? Or "What's up, yid?" Tense conversations are finished with lock-jawed ironic blessings, "A sweet Sabbath to you, too, detective."
A mother interrogated about her grown son remembers the last time she spoke to him - "I asked him if he was eating. He sometimes - they forget to eat."
Chabon has good fun wrinkling these noir conventions around these familiar points of Jewish cultural identity. The book is also packed full of swift but elaborate visual descriptions of physical characteristics; there are bars with ridiculous names, diners which serve coffee all night long. Only pickles are consumed, rather than cups of coffee.
Although Chabon could have pared some of these scenes back, they make ample use of his enormous ability to describe a mood. After one interrogation, Landsman rides down in an elevator "feeling as if he has stepped out from under the onrushing shadow of a plummeting piano."
As The Yiddish Policemen's Union twists and wriggles its way to the heart of a convoluted mystery, this physical sense of dread becomes a kind of nagging spiritual malaise. Everyone in this book has lost someone or something - and they're about to lose something even greater, their beloved homeland.
Landsman, as we get to know him, is being slowly squeezed to death by his own losses. His wife has left him; his sister was killed in a plane crash. He is the son and grandson of suicide victims, and he has begun to fall asleep with his pistol in his hand. Time is running out.
In a traditional noir, this catalog of woes would be proof positive of the world's amoral lack of design, the pitfalls of its entropy. In The Yiddish Policemen's Union, however, the degradation of crime - the losses it gouges into an already grieving society - becomes a nagging reminder of humanity's failure to live with God.
"An awful place, this sea," thinks the mother of the murdered chess prodigy, long before he gets a bullet in the back of his head, "this gulf between the Intention and the Act that people called 'the world.'" The greatest, the oldest stories in the world emerge from this gap. They are in fact an attempt to bridge it.
With The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Chabon strong-arms the noir back from its stylish remove to this primordial landscape and emerges, in the most unlikely fashion, with his most dourly true tale yet.
The writer is president of the National Book Critics Circle.