I love reading what Michael Chabon writes. As an American author, he has few living peers. When he’s average, he’s better than average, and when he’s on, he can break your heart.
Given that love for Chabon, I don’t know why it took me so long to sit down and read this book. Last year I read a collection of Chabon’s essays, two collections of short fiction, and an early novel, but The Yiddish Policemen’s Union has been sitting on my shelf longer than all of those. On reflection, I can only conclude that the reason I read those first was because they were on my Kindle, and for my reading habits, the convenience of a Kindle significantly exceeds that of a single, paper volume.
But on my shelf it sat, for maybe six years, its brightly colorful dust-jacket collecting dust, its title full of promise.
This year, as I mentioned, I’m trying to mix my reading between Kindle and paper copies. I also put together a list of fiction both literary and genre (ha!), old and new, American and international. And a few of these books are setting there like treats, drawing me on through the less-anticipated works, like King John or This Side of Paradise. Chabon’s book was one of these treats.
And it was a treat. The story was entertaining. The language was—as always with Chabon—beautiful. The characters were tragic and hilarious. The resolution was resolute.
The quick and dirty summary of the plot: in an alternate history, Israel’s attempt at nationhood failed in the late 40’s, and the United States granted some land in Sitka, Alaska to Jewish exiles. After 60 years, the US government is dominated by a group of apocalyptically-minded and fairly loony evangelical Christians who are on the verge of shutting down the temporary Jewish state and returning Sitka to Native American control. The main character, Meyer Landsman, is an alcoholic, divorced, nihilistic detective investigating the murder of a neighbor who turns out to be someone much more important than expected. And with that opening, the case proceeds to wind its way through the various corners of Sitka’s dying society, coming to a satisfying and dissatisfying conclusion.
Among other awards, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union won the Nebula, Locus, Sidewise, and Hugo awards.
A few thoughts:
You’ll notice I changed the title from “Read This Book” to “Maybe Read This Book.” Here’s why: Chabon has always treated his own Jewish heritage with some mixture of skepticism, frustration, love, and confusion. In this book, he does the same for the most part, but unfortunately dips into hateful invectives at times. I’m not sure, but if I had to guess, I’d say he was pretty frustrated with conservative political perspectives during the second President Bush’s administration—the various cheap shots are buried, but not too buried to miss. Case-in-point: the sub-plot involving a mysterious cabal of evangelical Christians who are not only controlling the government from the White House down to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but who are also arranging a series of geo-political events with the goal of bringing about the final apocalypse.
This is where alternate histories fail for me. Some writers of alternate history use their alternate histories to condemn or warn about some trend the author sees in our history. But, as someone wiser than me put it, all they’re saying is that things would be different if things were different. But things aren’t, so they’re not. In other words, there really are some evangelicals influencing government, but they have not been nearly as nefarious as those in this book, so it is pretty difficult to take too seriously Chabon’s hand-wringing over the possible disasters such evangelicals could bring about.
Also, last week, as I was looking at possible markets for my short stories, I ran across this hilarious (and all-too-accurate) line requesting that people stop submitting stories about “near future Christian fascist dystopias”:
“We’ve seen a lot of these lately, and they’re beginning to strike us as more ludicrous than nightmarish. You can’t get a bunch of Christians to cooperate long enough to run a church rummage sale, much less an oppressive police state.”
Additionally, I’ve changed the title from “Read this Book” to “Maybe Read This Book” because there is some content that would maybe make my mom blush. To be fair, the sexual content is anything but titillating. In fact, Chabon treats sex and sexual feeling with the a level of care that is unusual these days—as something that matters, that affects us, and that runs deeper than simple satisfaction. But still, you might rather skip it.
A few quotes:
“Night is an orange smear over Sitka, a compound of fog and the light of sodium-vapor streetlamps. It has the translucence of onions cooked in chicken fat.”
“Brennan studied German in college and learned his Yiddish from some pompous old German at the Institute, and he talks, somebody once remarked, ‘like a sausage recipe with footnotes.’”
“Men tend to cry, in Landsman’s experience, when they have been living for a long time with a sense of rightness and safety, and then they realize that all along, just under their boots, lay the abyss. That is part of the policeman’s job, to jerk back the pretty carpet that covers over the deep jagged hole in the floor.”
“‘When it comes to marriage I like to let other people make the mistakes,’ Landsman says. ‘My ex-wife, for example.’”
“Then he looks at the picture, and in the instant before he regains absolute control of his features Landsman sees Zimbalist take a swift punch in the belly. The wind departs his lungs, and the blood drains from his face. In his eyes, the steady maven flicker of intelligence is snuffed out. For a second Landsman is looking at a Polaroid of a dead boundary maven. Then the lights come back on in the old fart’s face. Berko and Landsman wait a little, and then a little more, and Landsman understands that the boundary maven is fighting as hard as he can to maintain that control, to hold on to the chance of making his next words Detectives, I have never seen that man before in my life, and having it sound plausible, inevitable, true.”
“They were both past the age of foolish passion, so they were passionate without being fools.”
“The clock on the hospital wall hummed to itself, got antsy, kept snapping off pieces of the night with its minute hand.”
“Like most policemen, Landsman sails double-hulled against tragedy, stabilized against heave and storm. It’s the shallows he has to worry about, the hairline fissures, the little freaks of torque. The memory of that summer, for example, or the thought that he has long since exhausted the patience of a kid who once would have waited a thousand years to spend an hour with him shooting cans off a fence with an air rifle. The sight of the Longhouse breaks some small, as yet unbroken facet of Landsman’s heart. All of the things they made, during their minute in this corner of the map, dissolved in brambles of salmonberry and oblivion.”
So, maybe read this book. Maybe read anything by Chabon, and thank me later.