“Whoa, I’m Jewish!” to “Whoa! Everyone’s Jewish!”: Portraits of Identity

You can’t beat the satisfaction of turning over the final leaf of a hardcover book. Unless you extend your qualifications for satisfaction beyond the realm — and by realm I mean armchair — of intellectual enrichment — and by intellectual enrichment I mean sitting on your ass and poring over a book for hours over several days. But if it’s a dang good book, then you can take “sitting on your ass” to mean a good thing for once in your life.

I needed that sense of accomplishment for my new reading blitz, so I took up Gone, the final book in Lisa McMann’s Wake trilogy, to finish in a couple of days. A 200+ page sprint, Gone ups the ante for teen protagonist Janie Hannagan, making her imminent life-changing decision even harder than first thought. I knew it couldn’t be as easy as choosing A. a long marriage to a hot dude as a cripple or B. hermitry and a clean bill of health. Short story even shorter, there is no clean bill of health. Gone is a card carrying YA bildungsroman, disguising growing pains as supernatural curses or phenomena to enhance its white knuckle readers’ personal connection to its heroes, dripfeeding melodrama and pop morality one issue at a time. When Janie figures out she may sport some Jewish genes, she has to wonder, like, God, does she have to start going to temple or something? Gone only has answers for the silly questions.

Enter Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, a gleefully scribed tribute to the yellow-paged pulp crime novels that Chabon grew up on, made memorable by a magnificently realized alternate history based upon a forgotten WWII-era footnote and Chabon’s self-deprecating Jewishness and hyper-metaphoricalness. I once read a note by Chabon who, looking back, said how he could stand in the middle of a library and marvel at the imagination on display, envious of the authors around him for having made it all the way. Understanding his influences, it’s easy to believe that The Yiddish Policeman’s Union earns Chabon his slot in the company of his idols.

Chabon mixes the pacing, battles, and showdowns of Gentlemen of the Road with the exposition and cynicism of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – sans editorialization – for a most refined take on an unrefined tale, a hard-boiled detective story full of black humor, dozens of run-ins with Murphy’s law, and lines spoken through clenched teeth. Kavalier & Clay is rightfully Chabon’s most celebrated work, spanning decades and continents, unraveling a tale of ambition, revenge, identity, friendship, and the pull they have upon one another. It is a true epic of criminally entertaining and stratospherically imaginative proportions. Union backs down from the scope of Kavalier & Clay, however, and for good reason.

In his story of a Jewish nation crammed into Sitka, Alaska to escape Nazi malice at the invitation of a suspiciously generous USA, Chabon wastes not a word painting the dingy slums and miscreants whose upturned collars and beards shuffle about the damp alleyways of their unasked-for city. Exile couldn’t be more miserable, and no one can shake the feeling that Sitka is a temporary turned permanent solution. The city is a grave for a heritage buried alive. Surveying the malaise, Detective Meyer Landsman, once a renowned police officer, is presented with a troubling crime committed in his own building the same day he learns that the the District of Sitka is to be given back to Alaska, and that the millions-strong Jewish nation will be displaced yet again.

Paired with his teddy bear tough Jewish-Tlingit cousin Berko Shemets, Landsman violates department policy by pursuing the lead when he is tasked with cleaning up cold case files before ‘Reversion.’ Within a matter of months Landsman will be out of a job, and considering he’s already out of a wife and has no dignity to spare, he’s going to end his career with a bang. A murder has just been committed in his own hotel, under his very nose, and he can’t call himself a detective if he can’t find out who did it. Most intriguing of all is the identity of the victim, which I can’t reveal here, and which introduces a supremely surreal element that perfectly tops the novel’s richly developed landscape. Landsman will need to tangle with street scum, gangsters, and high society on his way to nabbing the culprit, and his very first interrogation gears us up for a wild ride through the social strata of Sitka.

It’s nearly impossible at times to peg the exact era. Sitka is in decline, defined by erosion rather than expansion, and the closest Chabon comes to hinting that Union takes place in a modern era is his characters’ occasional use of cell phones, playfully called Shoyfers. The smart appendage of Jewish slang to Sitka’s society speaks volumes about the preservation of their culture, calling to mind the pathetic glory of a stuffed bear gracing a hunter’s lodge. Through the course of the story, it becomes more apparent that Chabon’s initial position is not that Jews are victimized by cycles of persecution and overprotection by the Goliaths around them, but they are the very center of an endless struggle for power. And the Jews are very aware of it, insulating themselves as best as they can. A darker agenda is indeed unveiled as Landsman follows the thread (in-joke here), but to say any more would spoil the surprise.

Chabon’s attention to detail gussies up the oldest conventions. Instead of leasing us a slick  new coupe, he refurbishes a classic that deserves much more than someone’s passing fancy and is completely immune from imitation. Tired cliches are tweeked, polished, and given depth; none are ever played up for ham. And Chabon’s lucid imagination sparkles through some of the most clever descriptions and scenarios you’re likely to come across in a thousand books. Union is a work of art that stands on its own and deserves revisiting, if only to pick out more of Chabon’s plays on words than anything else. The tension slows down occasionally, but never to a halt, even when Chabon’s minute scenery building threatens to try some readers’ patience, and the author’s commitment to his craft alerts us that we are in for no ordinary whodunnit. Union keeps you reading, giving out barely enough to let you take a stab at the ending, making you wonder with increasing dread just how high the conspiracy can go.

I was pretty pleased with my pace through The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, something I can’t brag about with The Historian. If you keep up with the book clubs, you’ll know why. Another doorstop, that one. It at least reads like a breeze, and is mildly suspenseful with a spattering of obscure historical flotsam, but I don’t see why it needs the length of three novels to tell what is essentially one mystery. Full resentful review to follow.

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