Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Book 2: The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon

'The Yiddish Policeman's Union' imagines that Israel did not last after being established in 1948 and that a Puerto Rico like settlement off the coast of Alaska has thrived for 50 years, part of and separate from America. The settlement will revert to American territory and the Jews once again will wander, being forced to leave a bleak landscape that they'd desperately carved into a makeshift homeland.

At the time of its release my family was reeling with the knowledge that my father was not going to recover from the cancer he'd been fighting. So a novel that supposes an imaginary city was, for me, akin to a grim drug, one that helped with your symptoms but had consequences of its own.

The funny thing about Chabon is that he seems to love writing what he calls 'genre fiction'. He talked at length about wanting to do a detective novel and adopting that hard-boiled terseness that is so evocative of that category of literature. He kept it up for about three tight pages and then the real Chabon comes out and sentences last pages and pages last chapters and parentheticals threaten to turn into their own novels.

But, even with the over verbosity wrestling with the nature of the form, Chabon has written a corker of a tale. Meyer Landsman is a Sitka homicide detective losing a long battle with alcoholism and depression. He pines for his ex who just so happens to be his new boss. A chess player in his building gets murdered which he takes rather personally and he sets out to solve the case.

Along the way Chabon gives us a snapshot of a city that never existed. You start to feel the streets, to sense the geography of the place, to truly sag under the weight of the oppressive cold and oncoming dread of relocation. The murder may or may not be related to this seismic change and Landsman risks what is left of his career to pursue a case that everyone wants to bury.

Several times during the reading of the novel I'd find myself forgetting that NONE of this actually existed. When a detective novel happens in New York or Chicago or Boston, the very reality of those cities lends a credibility to the story that enhances the tension. Here Chabon weaves it whole cloth.

And that is what my family did as we journeyed along with my father. You'd think there'd be a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth. But that was not how my father operated. I'd call from the west coast every day when I got out of work and if my father felt well enough we would chat. He mostly wanted to know what I was up to. We didn't discuss what was happening to him. It would have been like having a conversation about air.

We'd chit chat about the Celtics, about the Red Sox, about whatever he was trying to read at the time, which was slow going because of the pain he was in and the drugs he was on. He'd ask me about Cash and we'd just bask in what a good boy he is.

With 'The Yiddish Policeman's Union', Chabon has behaved like a god of sorts, wiping history away with a stroke of his pen. The citizens of Sitka go about their daily lives trying not to see the future which is staring them in the face.

As if everything was normal.

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