That Chabon Sure Has Chutzpah

The Yiddish Policemen's Union" is Michael Chabon's first full-length adult novel since his Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" seven years ago, and it's just as ambitiously imaginative—perhaps too much so. The book is set in an alternate present, in the Federal District of Sitka, Alaska, a safe haven carved out for the Jews after the collapse of Israel. Sitka (where everyone speaks Yiddish) is to revert to American control by the year-end, threatening to send the Jews wandering again. As usual, Chabon's language is incandescent, distilling sad Jewish mysticism into pulpy prose: "Night is an orange smear over Sitka, a compound of fog and the light of sodium-vapor street lamps. It has the translucence of onions cooked in chicken fat." Equal parts Chaim Potok, Dashiell Hammett and Woody Allen, "Policemen's Union" creates a new genre: hard-boiled egg noir.

The main action follows Meyer Landsman, a detective under review for a questionable shooting. Against orders, he investigates the murder of Mendel Shpilman, the estranged son of a powerful, corrupt rabbi. A chess prodigy, junkie and closeted homosexual who some believe performed miracles, Shpilman was whispered to have been the messiah. Solving his murder becomes a way for the detective to redeem himself as a failed son and husband.

Some critics have called "Policemen's Union" anti-Semitic, in part because characters casually call each other "yids." (The New York Post suggested that noted Talmudic scholar Mel Gibson direct the movie.) But Chabon has taken great care to portray a wide swath of humanity. The men may be largely broken or corrupt, but the women are particularly strong in their matrilineal fashion. Still, the most tone-deaf development centers on gangsters who, in a bizarre evocation of 9/11, reduce the Dome of the Rock to a "magnificent plume of black smoke." Imagine Sam Spade stumbling upon an international conspiracy to bring about the Biblical end times. This book is still well worth reading, but oy vay.

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