Jerusalem on the Jukebox: Chabon’s Yiddish Noir

by Tom Watson
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So lush is the detail in Michael Chabon’s brilliant The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, so developed the back-story, the alternative history, that it’s the rare short novel that feels long – like you want to live in its dark and distinct precincts a little longer.

YiddishChabon has described the book as an ode to Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald, and it continues his long fascination with detectives who descend from the lineage of Sherlock Holmes. A writer of short stories, essays and anthologies, Chabon has produced one other novel of massive creation – the wonderful The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, published in 2000. Like The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, it created a world of characters and places, and a code – or index – to what was happening: an incredibly deep encyclopedia of small chapters, clippings of the “past,” timelines, and people.

His latest work tops that achievement; it feels like Chabon wrote many thousands of pages of extra material and then synthesized it all to a tight crime drama featuring a small circle of dark and damaged characters – like he wrote big, boiled some water, and published the infusion.

The tea drinks well. Of course, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union revolves around an imagination-grabbing premise. A swath of Alaska has been set aside as the Jewish homeland, with its capital in the former frontier town of Sitka. The book is filled with Yiddish, and you’ll acquire more of a working knowledge of that evocative tongue by reading it. And at the center is a detective. A great failed, jaded, sad and sickly shadow of a Jewish dick.

Which is to say, a shammes. Which is derivative of Chandler’s shamus – which actually comes from (wait for it) the Yiddish word shammes – the sexton in a synagogue. Bringer of light to the darkness. Chabon’s experiment with language – of taking Yiddish, changing its context to a hard-boiled Alaskan Jewish state in its final days of American sufferance, and creating the street lingua of the “yids” of Sitka. It’s brilliant.

So are the characters. Homicide detective Meyer Landsman of the District Police is alcoholic, down, almost out and still in love with his former wife – a tougher cop than he, who happens to be his boss. His best friend and cousin – and partner – is half Tinglit native Berko Shemets. Mix in dozens of the “frozen chosen” – as a waggish Times headline writer put it last month – of all religious stripes, from the Lubavitcher-like sect that runs most of the rackets to the most secular of Jews. Then there’s the victim: too much here would prove spoilerish, but it’s safe to assume Chabon had a bit of Dostoevsky’s Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin in mind when he created the dead man in Landsman’s fleabag hotel.

Chabon’s writing deftly shifts both viewpoints and time itself, mixing in flasbacks and working seamlessly between the characters. About halfway through the book when we realize that Landsman will never get over his ex-wife, Bina Gelbfish, and that his desire is both simple and the only reason for his life:

If he lets her go, he will never again lie in the hollow of her breast, asleep. He will never sleep again without the help of a handful of Nembutal or the good offices of his chopped M-39.

Down the page, Bina regards the decrepit man she married and we learn more about her, and why she’s more successful as a cop:

She zips up her coat and then stands there a long few seconds, submitting him to her shammes inspection. Her gaze is not as comprehensive as his – she misses the details sometimes – but the things that she does see, she can link up quickly in her mind to the things that she knows about women and men, victims and murderers. She can shape them with confidence into narratives that hold together and make sense. She does not solve cases so much as tell the stories of them.

The book rambles a bit. There are several “endings.” And there are a few plot courses that are a tad too convenient. Who cares! Chabon is the rare modern novelist who both embraces genre fiction and rises above its limits. In short: a doll, a beauty.

Some other voices:

Half Changed World
Festering Swamp
Eileen Cook
Big Action!

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Comments

  • June 27, 2007

    Nice review, Tom. I read “Yiddish” when I was doing some traveling a few months ago and very much enjoyed it. Like you, I appreciated Chabon’s ability to tweak genre fiction, and thought that the alternate history plot device worked quite well.

  • Howard Chaykin
    June 27, 2007

    I finished the book last night, and thought it was wonderful–as a novel, and as, you should please pardon the expression, a perversely modern work of Yiddishkeit.

    I’m thoroughly delighted that Chabon references Jerome Charyn for his “The Hands of Esau,” the fellowship of Jewish police officers from his Isaac Seidel novels.

    Charyn is a terrific writer, an unfortunately neglected novelist long deserving of renewed attention–a man who wrestled the genre of police procedurals and crime fiction to the ground thirty years ago to astonishing and frequently surreal effect.

  • June 28, 2007

    A big Chabon fan, I had planned to read this book when it was available from the library. Or buy it used. Your review (and I’d already read a few) has convinced me I need to read it: now. Your quotes were spectacular in every sense of the word.