Right around the time he was polishing up The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon had a conversion moment. The novel was a 639-page brew of magic, World War II, New York City, superheroes, and comic books that would climb best-seller lists and win the author the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. As he wrote a scene for its final pages in which artist Joe Kavalier takes a Betty and Veronica comic into the woods and comes alive to the idea that the comic book is every bit as capable of producing art as any other medium Chabon suddenly realized he too loved comics (as well as science fiction, detective novels, adventure stories, fantasy, and horror). The real breakthrough for Chabon, by then the successfully ''literary'' author of Wonder Boys and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, was realizing that he didn't have to hide it anymore.
''It was a process analogous to coming out,'' he says today. He's sitting at his kitchen table in the Berkeley, Calif., home he shares with his wife and fellow novelist, Ayelet Waldman, and their four children. ''The genre thing was always there in my work there's gangsters in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh but going through the process of writing Kavalier & Clay made me aware I loved this stuff, and I didn't have to be ashamed. The world is full of great literature that's also genre. There's nothing that says you can't have it all in one book.'' So, ever since he first tried it in Kavalier & Clay, melding crowd-pleasing popular yarns with beautiful writing has continued to be Chabon's mandate. In that time, he's edited two books of pulp adventure stories for McSweeney's, co-written the Spider-Man 2 script, released a novella about Sherlock Holmes called The Final Solution, and embarked on a serial ''full of sword fights and hairbreadth escapes and horses and elephants and armies'' for The New York Times Magazine.
Now his biggest undertaking since Kavalier & Clay is done, and it's his boldest cross-pollination of forms so far. His new novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union (see review), is an old-fashioned detective story featuring rich language and a far-out literary twist. The book takes place in Alaska, and posits a hyper-imagined alternate history in which Jews were relocated there instead of Israel in 1948. Chabon got the idea years ago, after reading that such a proposal was actually floated during World War II. Only after thinking up the setting did Chabon decide to make it a detective novel and center it around a PI named Landsman.
To prepare, he read and reread his favorite literary mystery writers: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald. ''With them, it's not about the mystery per se,'' says Chabon, his trademark longish hair still wet from his morning shower. ''I mean, I like solving puzzles as much as the next guy, but it's never the detectiveness of the book, or the mystery, that I respond to. It's the voice, the prose. Now, I do enjoy the obligation to provide a crime, clues, and red herrings, but what got me going was the sense of atmosphere, and the certain amount of pleasure that I get from putting together things that haven't typically been put together.''
Chabon's publisher at HarperCollins, Jonathan Burnham, sees the historical precedent for what Chabon is doing with mash-ups like Yiddish. ''To get a little bit pretentious, it hearkens back to the 19th-century writers,'' Burnham says. ''Dickens and Thackeray were not afraid to draw from popular fiction: the potboiler, the melodrama, the gothic. They used all those elements and yet created unique literary fiction, and in a sense Michael is going back to that.''
So far, the only bump along the prerelease road comes courtesy of the New York Post, whose Page Six asserted on April 22 that Chabon's ''ugly'' depiction of Jews as ''constantly in conflict with each other'' would ''set off a firestorm of controversy.'' Chabon shrugs it off. ''I took it as a badge of honor,'' he says. ''My mom said, 'You've arrived now as a Jewish-American writer.' It made her think of Philip Roth and Portnoy's Complaint. You're not officially a Jewish-American writer until you've been roundly castigated by other Jews for what you've written.''
NEXT PAGE: Chabon and Waldman at home, a.k.a., Nick and Nora Charles with word processors