Sunday, June 15, 2008

Books that will have you using the word "sweetness" in a tough, ironic way

I've spent the past few days savoring Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, now available in paperback. The words "enlightening", "absorbing", and "entertaining" all apply, which is rare enough.

It's an alternate history detective story about Alaska, circa present day. Near the start of the Final Solution, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes hatches the idea to settle the Alaskan territory with emigrant European Jews, an idea that actually was floated. Unfortunately, this policy is formed in the genteel anti-Semitism the prewar government. That means that the settlements are time-limited to sixty years. At the time the novel unfolds, Reversion is looming, which means Everybody Out of the Pool.

In this alternate Arctic, down at the heel detective Meyer Landsman trips across the corpse of Mendel Shpilman, a fellow guest at his fleabag hotel. Shpilman is a chess prodigy gone to druggy seed, and more. His Corleonesque family harbored hope that he might be the Tzaddik-ha-Dor, aka Messiah. Exactly the plans that they had for him form the meat of the mystery.

What's great about the alternate world is that it's not used up. Many of the differences Chabon introduces are directly and explicitly connected to the Slattery report premise. Some are not. There's a war with Cuba somewhere in the past--probably but not definitely developed from the Missile Crisis--and some of the rougher characters are veterans of it. Landsman has several times seen an Orson Welles adaptation of The Heart of Darkness in a revival theatre, and interestingly enough the real Welles did adapt Conrad's novel to radio with the Mercury Theatre. The effect of the tangled changes from history as we know it is to create an organic world, both alien and familiar.

Distubingly familiar in some respects. The lower forty-eight in the novel are governed by a Dispensationalist Christian president, and without spoiling too much, we can say that this government engages in a marriage of convenience with the hardcore Verbover Jews, one that has potentially catastrophic consequences. The Middle East remains a powderkeg, and the invocation of End Times Christians in our own timeline is deliberate. (I would say that Bush and Cheney are not in this group themselves, being mainly hyper-capitalists, but foreign policy often does seem to be pitched to that level.

Landsman's relationship to his superior in the police department--also his ex-wife--is the least dramatic aspect of the story, but still satisfying. It would be wrong to say that he is still in love with her. More accurate to say that he's still head over heels in love with her. The reason it isn't more dramatic is that it's fairly obvious his feelings are a one way street. Their separation boils down to a bad misunderstanding. The couple aborted what would have been their first child because of a possibility that the child could inherit a serious illness. (Possibly Tay-Sachs, although I believe rabbis tend to put the kibosh on marriages where both parents are carriers.) What keeps them apart is essentially that they are apart. But their interactions, on and off the job, add another nice texture. The actors have good chemistry.


susan said...

Congrats, you've impressed me enough with this review I may just get the book on the weekend. I've looked at some of his others but haven't quite carried one home yet.

Ben said...

Yeah, I don't think I had read a book written by him before, although I think I did read an anthology he edited. Anyway, this was a gamble (well, a light gamble) that paid off.