So I finally read Michael Chabon’s novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and in spite of its serious flaws, I was still left with that wonderful feeling, Where have you been all my life? Why didn’t I read this thing sooner?
The novel’s delights lie in its setting, its genre, and its prose. The setting is an alternate history in which the state of Israel was never founded, but the United States agreed to resettle Holocaust survivors and other European Jews in the Alaskan territory. So now Sitka, Alaska is the heart of a Jewish land of “polar bears” who speak Yiddish, talk on cell phones called Shoyfers, wave guns called sholems–and displace the Tlingit people, with whom they’ve made an uneasy border peace. Jewish control of the territory has a time limit–sixty years starting in the 1940s–and that limit has been reached. In two months almost all the Jews of Sitka will be pushed out, again, into a world where nobody will take them. The uncertainty pulses on the page, the knowledge that the characters don’t even know yet how much they’ll lose but they can guess it’ll be a lot. All the hard-won things are about to be hard-lost.
The genre is noir, and also romance. Our hero is a battered homicide detective, Meyer Landsman, who has fallen into alcoholic disrepair since his divorce. Guy clearly still loves his ex-wife, and what do you know, she’s back in town, assigned to run his department, which is great for him because like all the best noir men he loves a woman who will tell him what to do. It’s not that he obeys her orders; they never do, you need the orders to structure your life and determine the reasons for your inevitable punishment. He’s supposed to be closing cases before Reversion (to the USA), but instead he keeps one case obstinately open: the murder of a junkie in a flophouse, who might have been the Messiah.
Good grief, I loved so much about this book. I loved the way Chabon feels the need for home and the way home is constantly slipping out from under you–it’s an apocalyptic longing. There are these great cynical, desperately-longing lines about the world where all men are brothers, where there is no more hunger, where everybody can have Permanent Status. This is a novel about the doomed, necessary project of making a home in this world: A home is a scam, a home is a trick you play on the world and then it turns out the world has always held the better cards. “Given enough string and enough poles, and with a little creative use of existing walls, fences, cliffs, and rivers, you could tie a circle around pretty much any place and call it an eruv.”
I love the use of waiting and the acknowledgment that none of us are ready for the part we will play in any story God wants to tell with us. (There’s one just breathtaking bit of double-edged dialogue about whether you’re ready to leave behind your addiction, which: obviously no, but also whether you’re willing to take your place in salvation history, which: also obviously no.)Landsman asks his partner, “But do you–I’m curious–do you really feel like you’re waiting for Messiah?”
And his partner’ replies, “It’s Messiah… what else can you do but wait?”
I thought the Jews vs. Indians conflict turned out to be handled with a lot more complexity than it at first seemed it might hold. I loved the chop-licking noir dialogue, delighting in its own resignation: “‘Please, Berko,’ don’t start having respect for my judgment now,’ Landsman saya. ‘Not after all this work I’ve put into undermining it.'” I loved too the descriptions, often both beautiful and menacing: “The wind jerks the snowflakes back and forth on its hundred hooks.” I loved the way both Judaism and Yiddishkeit sing in the prose and shape its imagery and rhythms: the Sabbath coming like a bride.
So what I did not love, and it’s important but if you want to read this book you should so you can skip this spoilery last thing I’m about to say, what I did not love was the ending. At the novel’s climax a huge, world-shaking event happens. I mean Chabon really goes there! But then he pulls back, and we get zero exploration of the consequences of that event, because he wants to tell us that the important thing is personal life, the romance. Which, why on earth do you write this passage about the dream of brotherhood in a world where we’re all thwarted enemies, if you are then going to say that brotherhood and enemyship are trivial in comparison to the heft of a familiar breast in your hand? You were telling me a story about two Jewish people that was also a story about the Jewish people, but then you swerve away and tell me the second thing is not what you’re really interested in. But I still am! (Also the way this book’s gay character is handled is… not always to my best liking, and this your-personal-life-is-key ending seems to either sideline his story completely or suggest that his life had a “right answer,” which is not a thing I wanted.) Anyway, maybe I am overreading or reading this ending wrong, but I felt like the story narrowed suddenly and in a way that felt like bad philosophy (no Jew is an island!) and kind of a cop-out.
Still, again, I loved so much of this, and I’m glad I read it.