Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Chabon's new novel is a mystery

Books now read in ’07: 50
Title: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Author: Michael Chabon
Genre: Mystery
Date Completed: 6-5
Pages: 411

Issues of identity and alienation haunt Michael Chabon’s long-awaited new novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. But let’s not allow the moral force of this novel to obscure the fact that it’s one fun, fine yarn.

As a youth, Chabon dreamed of writing “genre” fiction. That dream was discouraged by college literature classes and writer’s workshops, which emphasized the importance of literature, serious writing serving a purpose greater than mere entertainment. But a few years ago, Chabon regained that early determination to write genre fiction. The result is The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, in which Chabon, along with his readers, basks in the popular and entertaining genre commonly known as the mystery.

All the traditional ingredients are here, including the independent sad sack cop who struggles to stay sober. Meyer Landsman is at odds with his superiors (his ex-wife among them), the crooks and the world. He’s on the trail of a murderer and, of course, Landsman’s homicide investigation uncovers an even more heinous crime.

The novel is set in recent times in the Federal District of Sitka. After the fledgling state of Israel collapsed in 1948, Jewish refugees found safe haven in Sitka, located in the Alaska Panhandle on the west side of Baranof Island. Now, decades of Jewish rule are coming to an end. Under the Reversion, the district will vanish and this portion of Alaska will be returned to the United States and its native Tlingit population.

Chabon’s premise is based on a historical footnote. Between 1938 and 1940 the U.S. Congress considered a proposal to resettle Jewish refugees from Europe in Alaska. It was known as the King-Havenner bill or the Alaska Development Plan.

As the Reversion approaches, Landsman is investigating the death of a heroin addict in the fleabag hotel he calls home. Naturally, Landsman vows to the addict’s mother that he will find her son’s murderer. Just as naturally, Landsman’s supervisors tell him the case is closed. No open murder cases will be transferred to the “new” administration.

Landsman isn’t the sort of noz (that’s Yiddish for cop) to be waved off a case by his ex-wife, a powerful rebbe or the U.S. government. And we’re grateful that he’s not a mamzer, because his stubborn insistence on solving one final homicide makes for one enjoyable tale.

And something more: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is funny. Chabon’s humor – wry, ironic, satirical, sardonic – permeates this novel of mystery and purpose.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is good. Nu, it’s damn good.

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