In his wildest dreams, Dr. Joel Fleischman — the culturally dislocated Jewish doctor in the lox-out-of-water dramedy Northern Exposure — couldn’t have imagined the Alaskan wonders conjured by Michael Chabon in his marvelous reverie The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. But Isaac Bashevis Singer would feel right at home.
In Chabon’s virtuoso imagining — a capacious meditation on the contradictions of Jewishness, disguised as an outlandish detective novel — Israel as we know it never got off the ground in 1948. Instead, the destination of choice for Jews who survived the fires of World War II was a stretch of Alaska set aside by Franklin Roosevelt as a temporary catchment for those dispossessed millions, with Sitka as its teeming, slushy center. The Frozen Chosen, Chabon calls the parade of saints — criminals, cops, dreamers, losers, and schemers who people his raucous pages. And in the society they create, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay charts nothing less than a psychic world map of his own peeps. The alternate universe he plays in is jokier and cartoon-broader than usual, but Chabon the serious artist means business.
At its heart is a hard-boiled mystery. A guy — evidently a chess pro, a heroin addict, and a former ”black hat,” or ultra-Orthodox Hasid — turns up dead in a fleabag hotel, and Det. Meyer Landsman is left to figure out who, how, and why. Landsman’s got a drinking problem, an ex-wife who’s now his boss, and a cop partner who’s half Jewish, half Tlingit. He’s also got to race a ticking clock since the northern Promised Land was promised for only 60 years. After that, a Reversion will go into effect, stymying police procedure and forcing the Frozen Chosen to roam the chessboard of statelessness once again. ”These are strange times to be a Jew,” one tribal philosopher observes.
With each unruly fool Chabon introduces, further piquant strangeness is revealed. Also exposed: charlatan rabbis, radical plans to restore the holy temple in Jerusalem, American Jewish funding of terrorist Hasidic activities, and a thwarted messianic candidate. No sect is spared, no viewpoint is sacred — and no remedial tutoring is offered to any reader who doesn’t know his Yiddish kupf (that’s head) from his tuchis (that’s…tuchis).
In Chabon’s pulpy world, gray bureaucrats sparkle as ”men with the variegated surnames of doomed crewmen in a submarine movie,” and one chess player’s ”mother is calling him on the ultrasonic frequency reserved by the government for Jewish mothers in the event of lunch.” By the end, the plot bulges like a fatty pastrami sandwich. But in such an unholy land, what’s not to love?
For more EW coverage of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, see ''The New Adventures of Michael Chabon.''