I'm going to try to make Wednesday book reviewing day around here. Even if I only get to talk about one book a week, that should more or less keep pace with my reading. I've got a bit of a backlog now, however, and only brief moments on Wednesday morning for blogging, so it may take me a little while to catch up. And today's book deserves a post all to itself.
THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION
By Michael Chabon
(HarperCollins, May 2007)
I was one of the recipients of a kind and clever push to bloggers of this book by literary dean Chabon (whose book blurbs I always agree with, but whose AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY I admit I have never read, though it sounds like exactly the kind of book I would dig). I was a latecomer to the game and only got a signed bookplate, rather than a personalized book autograph -- still, it's nice of Mr. Chabon and his publisher to notice me.
And it's nice of him to write the first great book I've read this year.
Michael Chabon, judging by previous statements, loves at least two things: genre fiction, and Jewishness. This book has both in spades. It's a detective story, set in a speculative alternate world, populated almost entirely by the Chosen People and rich with Yiddish idiom and character. You probably know the premise: in this world, the Jewish homeland in Jerusalem didn't work out so well, and the U.S. provided Alaska as a refuge for the Jewish diaspora. But the solution was temporary, and the lease has almost expired, so our hero shammes (I always thought it was shamus, but this is the Yiddish version) is trying to crack his case under the shadow of Reversion, when the land will revert back to the U.S. and the Jews may be homeless once more.
On some level, this is a pure, juicy detective story. Marlowe-esque (in the sense that he's jaded and screwed up but darn good at what he does and rather witty to boot) detective Meyer Landsman finds the body of a heroin-addicted, chess-playing former Orthodox kid in his fleabag hotel, and against the advice of his partner (his half-Indian cousin Berko) and his commanding officer (his ex-wife Bina -- long story) decides he has to get to the bottom of the murder. The search leads him on a tour of Jewish Sitka, Alaska, from the tense Jewish-Indian relations to the ultra-Orthodox mobsters to the paranoid preparations of the first generation of European concentration camp escapees. Dropped clues, bravado, guesswork and luck (with a little violence to keep things interesting) lead our hero to his goal of discovery, though by that time it's beside the point. It's a gripping subway read, and I was delighted to discover I was looking forward to moments of downtime because I could get some more reading in (a particularly onerous wait at the post office was one of the most exciting hours I've ever spent, because my nose was in this book, following Landsman's).
But (and you probably saw this coming) Chabon embraces genre to transcend it. YPU is to the average detective novel what the movie JAWS is to the average SciFi channel giant-killer-animal movie. All the suspense is there, the hooks of the traditional structure, but what's in between is unnecessary, wonderful richness -- of character, of scene, of speculation on the longing for a homeland and a savior, the irresistible pull and the unbearable pressure of family. It's the kind of book where not only did I get heart-pounding suspense in the tensest scenes, I came away with a new understanding of the pathos of the wait for the Messiah. And the weight of love and history, especially between the three principal characters (Meyer, Berko, and Bina), is palpable and moving.
The conspiracy Landsman's investigation uncovers is a little eye-roll-worthy, but this is fantasy, after all, and it's a small price to pay -- for every stereotypical American government flunkie/fanatic, there's a chess player without a voice, an uncle whose love of his people conflicts with his love of his family, a Dickensian character like the bad-ass midget lawman or the mysteriously powerful Boundary Maven. The story's wildness is given form by its genre, and given substance by Chabon's unparalleled humor, empathy, and writerly chops.
So yeah, I liked this one. I can't wait until it comes out in early May so I can press it on every one I know. Give it for Mother's Day, graduation, the random dinner party where you like the hostess. Hang it from your doorframe like a mezuzah. But mostly, read it. It will reward the effort - I promise on my homemade badge.