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The private eye and the state of Israel

Review by Amy Muldoon | September 14, 2007 | Page 11

Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen's Union. HarperCollins, 432 pages, $26.95.

MICHAEL CHABON'S Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay wound imaginary characters into the real history of New York's heyday of comic books. His latest work, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, takes a jaws of life to post-Second World War history by imaging a world where the budding state of Israel was beaten back and ultimately eradicated by the surrounding Arab forces.

This intriguing political premise lays the foundation for a murder mystery/international conspiracy/family drama set in the federal district of Sitka, Alaska, a makeshift home for 3.2 million Jews. It's a book of epic proportions and incredible inventiveness, with subtle layers of political sentiment and personal redemption.

The story unfolds around Meyer Landsman (Chabon clearly enjoys a good name, as the pint-sized cop Willie Dick proves), Sitka's once rising-star detective, who is now divorced, alcoholic and living in a flophouse hotel. The clock is ticking for Sitka as a homeland for Europe's Holocaust survivors and descendents, as the U.S.--with real-life characteristic cynicism--has only loaned the land to the settlers for 60 years.

In actual history, in 1940 the U.S. Congress did consider allowing Jewish refugees to settle in Alaska, but it was squashed (along with efforts to allow refugees into the continental U.S.), in no small part because of anti-Semitism. In YPU, the main opponent in Congress dies in a freak accident chasing a rum bun into the street the day before the measure is to be voted on.

Sitka is a complete world, including colorful slang and fake cultural quirks (like Filipino-Chinese donuts). Yiddish is the official language, except when swearing, which is done in "American." Much of the slang is cleverly Chabon-ized Yiddish: "shoyfer," or ram's horn, is a cell phone; and a "sholem" is a peacemaker, or a gun.

Echoing the conflicts with both Palestinians and African American neighbors, the Jewish locals chafe against the native Tlingit population (which exploded during a Crown Heights-like event known as the "Shavuot Dairy Massacre"). Landsman's partner, Berko "Johnny Bear" Shemets, also his cousin, is the rarest breed: half Jewish, half Tlingit, a product of his father's work as a spook infiltrating the Tlingit resistance movement.

The mystery at the center of the plot concerns the murder of a junky chess aficionado in Landsman's hotel. The case is officially closed, but Landsman drags Berko into an investigation that leads them into the closed world of the "Black Hats": Sitka's Orthodox Jews. At the top of the pyramid are the Verbovers, an ultra-Orthodox sect that happens to also be Sitka's most powerful mafia.

The identity and history of the murder victim unearth not only an international conspiracy, but unravel the mysteries of Meyer's and Berko's families as well. Chabon consciously references the older genre of hard-boiled private-eye mysteries by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but Landsman is more human and tender. His solitude, his hard drinking, his near suicidal pursuit of the case aren't sources of glory but reflections of subterranean tragedies. Watching these unwind is as satisfying as the ultimate resolution of the whodunit.

Needless to say, Chabon has been attacked for being anti-Semitic for writing a book that casts a religious sect as a mafia, and fulfilling a desire to see Jewish conspiracies behind everything. But Chabon has a deft hand at revealing the master behind the conspiracy without any didacticism about the use and abuse of the legacy of the Holocaust.

It's Landsman's sense of right and wrong that guides the story, his deep longing for permanence with people not with a patch of land, that gives the story a broad resonance, despite Chabon's dead-on distillation of a Jewish fear of "always being a guest in someone else's house."

As a piece of "alternate reality" fiction, YPU ranks with Lord of the Rings in inventiveness and complexity. But it's not much of a fantasy; characters and places are so closely observed they're almost familiar, while its just off-center version of the world gives enough perspective to look under the edge of our reality and challenge assumptions about how and why Israel came to be. Combined with Chabon's crisp, beautiful language and can't-put-it-down mystery writing, YPU is a downright masterpiece.

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