Jewishness, identity, freedom as seen in a funhouse mirror

May 06, 2007|By David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin,Los Angeles Times

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

By Michael Chabon

HarperCollins / 411 pages / $26.95

Let's begin with an uncomfortable question: What has Michael Chabon been up to for the past seven years? Certainly he's been writing; in 2002, he published Summerland, a lengthy baseball fantasy for young readers, and two years later, his novella The Final Solution imagined Sherlock Holmes as an old man. He has also edited a couple of anthologies and created a series of comic books featuring the Escapist, the superhero he invented for his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2001.

For a writer of Chabon's ambition, however, projects like these seem ancillary at best. His 1995 novel Wonder Boys - by turns, the funniest and bleakest novel about the writing life ever set to paper - is a deft examination of the rigors of expression, of the way art does not so much save as complicate your life. Kavalier & Clay eclipses the line between literature and genre fiction, integrating elements of myth, history, pop culture and Jewish identity in a nearly seamless weave. What's exciting about these books is their sense that fiction can do anything, that it can be provocative and graceful, challenging and flat-out, foot-stomping fun. It's as if Kurt Vonnegut and Philip Roth started a rock 'n' roll band; this is writing that makes you want to get up and dance.

Chabon's new novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, is, finally, a spiritual descendant of Kavalier & Clay, a book that expands on the sensibility of the earlier novel and its roots in Jewish storytelling. It is very good - let's just say that at the outset - a larger-than-life folk tale set in an alternate-universe version of the present where issues of exile and belonging, of identity, nationality, freedom and destiny are examined through a funhouse mirror that renders them opaque and recognizable all at once.

The setup is a series of speculations: What if, as Franklin D. Roosevelt once suggested, a safe zone had been established in Alaska under the protection of the United States for European Jews escaping Hitler? What if this "Federal District of Sitka" had grown and developed until its population was in the millions, a country within a country, as it were? What if Israel had collapsed in 1948, mere months after independence, leaving many Jews with nowhere else to turn? And what if, 60 years later, Sitka was about to face a process called "reversion," in which its territories would be returned and its Jews cast back into the Diaspora, a Diaspora in which the desirability of their presence was not entirely assured? This is, of course, the stuff of fable and, indeed, of a particularly Jewish kind of fable: the exaggeration, the extended improvisation, the joke. It's a lineage that begins with the legendary fool's paradise of Chelm, and extends to more modern Jewish fabulists such as Franz Kafka and Groucho Marx. And yet, for all that The Yiddish Policemen's Union has in common with this tradition, Chabon is after a quintessentially American synthesis, in which immigrant heritage blends with mass-culture fascinations such as science fiction and noir.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a murder mystery, the story of police detective Meyer Landsman and his attempt to unravel the execution-style killing of a junkie named Mendel Shpilman, found dead in his room in a Sitka SRO. (In one of the book's best details, Landsman discovers tefillin - a leather case containing passages from the Torah attached to a strap - with the dead man's drug paraphernalia. "There's a new one," an investigator says. "Tying off with tefillin.") Shpilman is the son of the Federal District's most powerful rabbi, a man who rules over his sect - known familiarly as "black hats" - like a crime boss, dispensing influence and favors, while remaining as aloof and enigmatic as a Talmudic text. For Landsman, who is something of a loose cannon, a drinker who lives in the same hotel where Shpilman died, the case represents a last chance to redeem himself, in both his own eyes and those of his ex-wife, Bina, who is his supervisor.

Redemption, however, creates its own complications, not just for Landsman but for Jewry at large. The deceased, after all, was once regarded as the Tzaddik Ha-Dor, a potential Messiah, and the question of his divinity reverberates throughout the book. "We are taught by the Baal Shem Tov, of blessed memory," the rabbi explains, "that a man with the potential to be Messiah is born into every generation." The catch is that the Jews as a people must reveal themselves as worthy, or the Messiah will remain hidden and the world will go on as it always has.

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