Landsman has put a lot of work into the avoidance of having to understand concepts like that of the eruv, but he knows that it's the typical Jewish ritual dodge, a scam run on God, that controlling motherfucker. It has something to do with pretending the telephone poles are doorposts, and that the wires are lintels. You can tie off an area using poles and strings and call it an eruv, then pretend on the Sabbath that this eruv you've drawn—-in the case of Zimbalist and his crew, it's pretty much the whole District—-is your house. That way you can get around the Sabbath ban on carrying in a public place, and walk to shul with a couple of Alka-Seltzers in your pocket, and it isn't a sin(110).
Wonder Boys became a movie, less obviously satiric than its source and more of a middle-age male wish-fulfillment fantasy, based on material written by a then 32-year old author. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay took the Pulitzer, perhaps the first such prize for a scribe citing Jack Kirby as an influence. Michael Chabon has followed these brilliant, oddball excursions with an alternate history mystery set in the noir world of the Alaskan shtetlekh.
A drug addict whom many once believed would be the Messiah dies in a cheap hotel of an Alaskan Jewish homeland. Detective Meyer Landsman, a riff on that American classic, the hardboiled detective, and also a resident of this hotel, investigates. The trail will take him further into the dark politics of a history that diverged from ours due to a road accident in 1940.1
Landsman and his partner, the Tlingit/Jew Berko Shemets, soon realize that well-placed people do not want them to solve this particular case. They also face pressure from their supervisor-- Landsman's ex-wife-- to close other remaining cases before the Frozen Chosens' lease on Alaskan land expires. Landsman's sister seems involved in the case, as do an Orthodox group intent on seeing the Messiah-- or perhaps merely willing to use belief in him to further their own ends. The narrative reflects Landsman's perspective on religious matters, not so much that of an atheist but rather of someone dumbfounded and irked by the mysterious workings of God.
I believed in this world and its history, and yet at no point does Chabon bury us with infodump. His most casual descriptions, from the expected broken hotels filled with broken lives to the Verbovers' "Disney shtetl, bright and clean as a freshly forged birth certificate"(106), to a beating that leaves Landsman feeling like someone fed "his right ear to the propeller blades of a Cessna 206"(264), all help realize this world.
Chabon has mixed parts of existing literary tropes, which he both uses and parodies as he carries conventions from one domain to another. The story needs the world he's created to occur, and yet the events never seem forced, nor the setting, implausible. Indeed, events resemble and reflect real-world politics in ways too close for any perceptive reader's comfort.
The novel also plays nicely with the place of God in its reality. We're in a gritty and cold street-level setting, and yet we receive hints that a divine presence could be at work. We hear absurd tabloid rumors of a messianic image which may be smiling or "merely suffering from a mild attack of gas" and a prophetic chicken which predicts the coming of the messiah but, however, "neglected to mention the soup in which, having once more fallen silent as God Himself, it afterward featured"(13). We see entirely realistic, opportunistic realpolitik. And yet we cannot dismiss the notion that someone like Emanuel Lasker may have touched a higher power.
The story grows somewhat unwieldy towards the end—a flaw found in that other writer of literary noir, James Ellroy. Some readers may be disappointed with the final pages. If they contain flaws, they are minor, given how much the author accomplishes.
A few critics have expressed surprise that their darling would write a book which could be considered both SF and mystery. The rest of us understand that Real WritersTM can and do write genre. Chabon takes elements of a familiar, commercially-successful mystery format and a speculative fiction concept and produces something both readable and literary. The Yiddish Policemen's Union has found a broad and literary audience. It has been nominated for an Edgar Award and the 2008 Hugo. A film by the Coen Brothers is in pre-production. I didn't enjoy this novel quite as much as Kavalier and Clay, but I can recommend it almost as highly.
Title: The Yiddish Policemen's Union
Author: Michael Chabon
Original Publication Date: 2007
1. FDR had proposed that Jewish refugees from Europe (many of whom were simply turned away from North America in the 1930s and 40s) be given a temporary homeland in Alaska. Representative Anthony Diamond led the opposition that defeated this proposal. In Chabon's version of history, Diamond dies in an accident, the bill passes, and millions are saved from the Holocaust. However, a less-populated Israel, under attack, collapses in 1948 and, in the early twenty-first century, the complex culture that has developed in Chabon's Alaska faces eviction with the end of their lease, and dark political forces play their part in the death of man once thought to be the Messiah.