There's all manner of weirdness flavouring The Yiddish Policemen's Union (HarperCollinsCanada, $33.95), the latest masterful novel from Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon. There are the tiny details of alternate history, like the A-bomb that flattened Berlin at the end of the war. There's the larger conceit of Jews settling part of Alaska instead of a chunk of the Middle East. And then there's Chabon's mash-up of Yiddish domestic fiction and Raymond Chandler–style hard-boiled gumshoe. These and myriad other inventions add up to a story of wise-cracking verve and craft. And that's not even mentioning the dead gay junkie who just might be the Messiah.
Chabon, speaking from a Boston hotel mid book tour, is cheerful and welcoming of questions about his first full-length novel for adults since the prizewinning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Like, isn't it a little willful to drop your average flatfoot into a Sitka ruled by a faction of Orthodox wise guys? And isn't he supposed to be alone, not in constant contact with his half-Tlingit partner, his ex-wife who's now the district chief, and memories of a tomboy sister and a father obsessed with chess (shades of Philip Marlowe)?
"The kind of classic Chandlerian hero is a loner, no doubt about it," the Berkeley, California–based Chabon says. "He [Detective Meyer Landsman] is lonely. He's living alone in this little flophouse room and so, sort of at first glance he fits the template, I suppose. But it's only as we pull back that we become aware of the network of relationships that he's still enmeshed in. It felt very easy to locate Meyer as a homicide detective who's in kind of a bad way–in a classically bad way–but also as a son and an ex-husband and a cousin and a mourning brother."
Being hemmed in by family, friends, and kibitzers is arguably one of the novel's Jewish facets. There are more overt ones. Chabon reminds us frequently that although the book is written in standard (if oy vey–ish) English, the story takes place in Yiddish. "Part of the reason why you're sort of reminded every time that a character is speaking in English," Chabon explains, "is because it would come as a little bit of a surprise to me, actually, and I felt I wanted to communicate a sense of a shift." Then there's "Alyeska" itself: "The street grid here on the island," he writes, "is still Sitka's, ruled and numbered, but apart from that, you are gone, sweetness: star-shot, teleported, spun clear through the wormhole to the planet of the Jews."
As for the messianic angle, Chabon points out that there's a tradition he's tapping into. "One of the descriptions that we get, I guess it's in Isaiah, [of] who the messiah is or who he will be–which is taken up by Christian writers–is that he will be a man of sorrows, that he will be acquainted with grief, and that you will find him among the lepers, ostracized from society. And it seemed like a no-brainer, trying to think of him as an outsider [that he'd be] a junkie or a gay man coming from a world where being gay is unacceptable."
Chabon fans will recognize the touchstones: the close friendships between men, the intersections of pop culture and history, the reluctant hero, the homosexual. "Writers tend to write about the same thing over and over and over again," Chabon once told Rolling Stone. "Variations on a theme.”¦I almost don't want to look into it too carefully." Maybe there's a shamus out there who'd help him.