Friday, March 28, 2008

God's Frozen People

What an incredible imagination Michael Chabon has! Is it his affection for comic books, as we saw in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, that makes him capable of imagining an entire alternate universe? Here's his amazing “what if” in The Yiddish Policemen's Union - the state of Israel fails in 1948 and the US offers the Jews a temporary homeland for 60 years in Sitka Alaska. But now it's late 2007, and the US has never granted them permanent status. “Reversion” looms, when Federal District of Sitka will return to Alaska's control, and the fate of its current inhabitants is uncertain. All this serves as the backdrop for Chabon's main character Meyer Landsman. He's a hard-boiled, hard-drinking, chain-smoking, miserably divorced homicide detective right out of Raymond Chandler. Think of Robert Mitchum in a 40's film noir, with a Tlingit Indian sidekick named Berko who's a devout Jew. And they're trying to solve a murder that no one wants solved.

In some ways this book reminds me of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, which also created an alternate reality where the outside world threatened the Jewish characters. But Chabon's book has a very different tone. It is simultaneously a black comedy, a whodunit and a treatise on Jewish diaspora. There's even a sort of love story - Meyer still pines for his ex-wife Bina, who is now his boss. The plot twists and turns, and I needed a crib sheet to keep all the characters straight. And I'm sure that if I knew Yiddish some of the slang in this imaginary universe would make more sense. A cell phone is a shoyfer; a cop is a noz; a gun is a sholem; cigarettes are papiros. Are these all inside jokes? But Chabon creates a vivid world that had me turning the pages to the very end.

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