Michael Chabon’s most recent book, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, is a rarity—a book that simultaneously succeeds massively on all three main levels that one often wants to read for. It is a novel of ideas, dramatizing serious sociopolitical issues concerning Israel and America’s Jewish community. It is a genre novel, in this case a noirish murder mystery. And it is funny as hell—with new and laugh-out-loud hilarious takes on classic Jewish humor tropes that would make Groucho or Woody extremely jealous. It is impossible not to greatly enjoy reading this book, and I look forward to re-reading it in the future.
Chabon is perhaps America’s best male writer at this point, leaving aside Thomas Pynchon, whose recent Against the Day was a huge disappointment. Few American writers are very intellectually ambitious these days, and Chabon is not quite up to Pynchon’s level in that category, but this is as ambitious a work as we are likely to see in the current literary culture. He is influenced by Pynchon--often not such a good thing, as in David Foster Wallace’s case—but Chabon has his own very focused visions, which rein in potential excesses (especially that of over-writing) while leaving an incredibly inventive and skilled fictional voice to provide literary craftsmanship of a very high order. He uses metaphor and simile in as inventive and creative a way as anyone, and rewards close reading with astonishing regularity.
The main conceit is a courageous one—Chabon re-imagines Israel as having failed to take hold in the Middle East after WWII, with a refuge for Jews instead having been temporarily established in Alaska. Now the US is, under a right-wing administration, kicking the Jews back out of Alaska--to what destinations it is unconcerned, though some hope that they can now try to establish Israel in the Middle East again. The hugely controversial issues of the current Israeli situation are given milder local analogues by Chabon—for example, the role of the Palestinians is now played by the local Native American Tlingit tribes, who have been forced to “make room” for the Jews. The US government is of course not really concerned about Tlingit rights, either—it is cynically playing various right-wing political cards. It is to Chabon’s credit that he (Jewish himself) does not shy away from portraying the complexity of the issues, with Jews here remaining victims but having hugely flawed features to their society, including Jewish terrorists and a Jewish Mafia. Chabon humanizes the issues, avoiding stereotypes, in clever and imaginative ways that every political ideologue of the right should be forced to read. Two wrongs never make a right here—instead they usually lead to recognition that there are a lot more than two to worry about.
The rest of the plot is classic noir: broken down alcoholic detective Meyer Landsman must solve a mysterious death, and has all odds stacked against him, both personal and societal. He is Jewish, as is almost everyone in the refuge who isn’t Tlingit—the latter including Landsman’s half-Jewish, half-Tlingit partner, who provides muscle and (some) sanity to Landsman’s seemingly doomed attempts to pursue justice. The murder victim is a potential new Messiah, estranged son of a Jewish Mafioso, and Messianic solutions to problems are one of the main themes of the book—also doomed, Chabon suggests. There are lots of plot twists, all engaging and informed by the best long-suffering Jewish humor to be had in a long time. No point detailing these things—rest assured you will absolutely enjoy reading them.
Things get a bit implausible along the way, and the ending is fairly canned and pat—but one can’t really consider these minor flaws as very detrimental, for Chabon uses the noir and plot devices (and humor) only as hooks upon which to hang his greater aims—his visions of loneliness, separation, victimhood, and loss, and of how, to remain human, we must try to overcome these in humane ways no matter how insane and inhumane the world around us is becoming. These aims he accomplishes wholly successfully—by creating his own world, fairly similar to our own, but different enough to make us really think about the comparison. That’s what great writers do, and Chabon is finally approaching this status. I am currently reading his earlier, Pulitzer-winning book, Kavalier and Klay, which attempts similar things in a bit less focused and successful fashion. If his next book shows similar improvement, Chabon may be approaching a pinnacle that few American writers before him have scaled.