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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

The Frozen Chosen

Michael Chabon gives pulp mystery a spiritual spin in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.



Three years ago, Michael Chabon delivered a knock on the chin of literary readers who turned up their noses at mysteries, thrillers and the like. “In spite of the continuing disdain or neglect in which most of the ‘non-literary’ genres are held,” Chabon wrote, “many if not most of the most interesting writers of the past 75 years found themselves drawn, inexorably, to the borderlands.nn

Since 2000, Chabon hasn’t just aired these opinions; he has dwelled there in his work as well. He started with his Pulitzer Prize-winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a literary novel inspired by comics. Then came a fantasy novel for young adults (Summerland), and a novella that drew upon the suspense stories of Arthur Conan Doyle (The Final Solution). Now, with The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Chabon has taken an abrupt turn down the dark, slick alleyway of the noir, but with a twist. In Chabon’s world, the homeland of the Jews is not Israel, but the Alaskan panhandle, where all the drug dealing, people smuggling and numbers running is controlled by the “black hats” (or Hasidim).


As the book begins, the Jews are about to lose that homeland, but Meyer Landsman'a 42-year-old Jewish cop'isn’t about to let that stop him from solving one last case. “These are strange times to be a Jew,” says the night watchman at a flophouse where the body of a heroin-addicted chess prodigy turns up, “no doubt about it.nn

It is an enormous relief to discover that The Yiddish Policemen’s Union isn’t some veiled political argument about the Israeli/Palestinian situation'as New York Post henchmen tried to insinuate in advance of the novel’s publication'but a rich, terrifically funny and sad novel about the pain of exile, personal and spiritual. Indeed, Chabon’s biggest reinvention has little to do with history, and everything to do with the noir'which, since its inception, has been as secular a landscape as one can find in the already pretty secular American novel. Everywhere that Landsman and his half-Tlingit/half-Jewish partner go in the grim, gray-lit expanse of Alaskan tundra they find people who believe. Tense conversations are finished with lock-jawed ironic blessings: “A sweet Sabbath to you, too, detective.nn

Chabon has good fun wrinkling familiar points of Jewish cultural identity around the noir’s conventions. There are bars with ridiculous names and diners that serve coffee all night long'only pickles are consumed, rather than cups of coffee. Although Chabon could have pared some of these scenes back, they make ample use of his ability to describe a mood. After one interrogation, Meyer rides down in an elevator “feeling as if he has stepped out from under the onrushing shadow of a plummeting piano.nn

As Union twists its way to the heart of a convoluted mystery, this physical sense of dread becomes a kind of nagging spiritual malaise. Everyone in this book has lost someone or lost something, and they’re about to lose something even greater. Landsman, as we get to know him, is being slowly squeezed to death by his own losses: His wife has left him; his sister was killed in a plane crash; he is the son and grandson of suicide victims, and he has begun to fall asleep with his pistol in his hand. Time is running out.


In a traditional noir, this catalog of woes would be proof positive of the world’s amoral lack of design. In Union, however, the degradation of crime'the losses it gouges into an already grieving society'becomes a nagging reminder of human failure to live with God. As the mother of the murdered chess prodigy thinks, long before he is murdered, “An awful place, this sea, this gulf between the Intention and the Act that people called ‘the world.’nn

The greatest, oldest stories in the world emerge from this gap; they are an attempt to bridge it. With The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Chabon strong-arms the noir back from its stylish remove to this primordial landscape and emerges, in the most unlikely fashion, with his most dourly true tale yet.


nMichael Chabon
nHarper Collins