Goldy is wearing his polar-bear jammies, the height of retrospective chic for an Alaskan Jewish kid. [...] Snowflakes, yes, the Jews found them here, though, thanks to greenhouse gases, there are measurably fewer than in the old days. But no polar bears. No igloos. No reindeer. Mostly just a lot of angry Indians, fog, and rain, and half a century of a sense of mistakenness so keen, worked so deep into the systems of the Jews, that it emerges everywhere, even on their children's pajamas.
Books that should have been on the Clarke Award shortlist, part 1: Michael Chabon's hugely enjoyable noir alternate history, The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007), about chess players, messianic conspiracies, and a washed-up detective named Meyer Landsman - is there any other sort? - in "Jewlaska".
(I mean, just look at that cover! What's not to love?)
In this version of the world, Jewish refugees and migrants after WWII did not form the state of Israel, but were expelled from the Holy Land in 1948. By way of a strictly temporary refuge, the United States granted the Jews the right to settle in Sitka, Alaska - another land with existing inhabitants, the Tlingit in this case, far from happy about the sudden, dominant population boost - for sixty years. (Other aspects of Chabon's world's alternaity surface only as glimpses - there is a reference to the President of Manchuria, for example - since the focus is entirely on Sitka and its inhabitants, and perhaps also because things are not all that different. And there is a strong implication that a reversion to our status quo is certainly not unimaginable.)
This period of sort-of grace is now coming to a close. A sense of time running out, of rootlessness, thus pervades the novel, threading through both the plot - the suitably noirish (i.e., shady, elaborate and essentially nonsensical) conspiracy that Landsman* sets out to unravel centres on efforts to bring to an end the need for the Jews' wandering - and the characters' reflections and reactions:
The wind carried a sour tang of pulped lumber, the smell of boat diesel and the slaughter and canning of salmon. According to 'Nokh Amol', a song that Landsman and every other Alaskan Jew of his generation learned in grade school, the smell of the wind from the Gulf fills a Jewish nose with a sense of promise, opportunity, the chance to start again. 'Nokh Amol' dates from the Polar Bear days, the early forties, and it's supposed to be an expression of gratitude for another miraculous deliverance: Once Again. Nowadays the Jews of the Sitka District tend to hear the ironic edge that was there all along.
[* I can't imagine that's an unintentional pun.]
As the title implies, the linguistic (and cultural) weight in Sitka lies with Yiddish rather than Hebrew, for reasons never really explained (at least within the novel): the text, both dialogue and character viewpoint-led narration, is peppered thickly with Yiddish slang (shtinker, shammes, dybbuk, shkotz - the latter, a quick Google informs me, being a specifically American Yiddish formulation - and, most prevalently, yid as a synonym for man). It's a fast and effective way to build up the texture of an unfamiliar world.
But then, the various layers of the setting saturate the punchy, present-tense prose throughout. To pick one concentrated example, there are the descriptive similes used for different characters' facial features, drawing liberally upon or resonating with the forbidding Alaskan climes ("his eyes are close-set and the color of cold seawater"), the lurking American presence ("a complexion tinged with green, like the white of a dollar bill"), or Jewish scholarly practice ("His skin is as pale as a page of commentary"). Elsewhere, the noir mood is evoked, just as effortlessly: "In the street the wind shakes rain from the flaps of its overcoat."
Landsman is the archetypal filmic detective: wry, acerbic, emotionally sealed-off (so as to hide his pain, of course), shabby of appearance, and wedded to the job ("But the truth is that Landsman has only two moods: working and dead") because he doesn't really have anything else:
"I hate to wake you, Detective," Tenenboym says. "Only I noticed that you don't really sleep."
"I sleep," Landsman says. He picks up the shotglass that he is currently dating, a souvenir of the World's Fair of 1977. "It's just I do it in my underpants and shirt."
Landsman has lived in a fleabag hotel - site of the untimely death that launches Landsman's investigation, his room in which has "a view of the neon sign on the hotel across Max Nordau Street" - since becoming estranged from his wife, the brisk, capable, no-nonsense Bina (who, despite being a detective herself and Landsman's new boss to boot, gets entirely too little screentime; the way she is sidelined near the end was particularly disappointing). As we might expect, Landsman's attitude to her is composed of equal parts yearning and self-pity, enough to make us suspect that he has become enamoured of his own wretched defeat:
Landsman watches her walk across the dining area to the doors of the Polar-Shtern Kafeteria. He bets himself a dollar that she won't look back at him before she puts up her hood and steps out into the snow. But he's a charitable man, and it was a sucker bet, and so he never bothers to collect.
Landsman also has the requisite physically imposing but infalliably good-natured sidekick in the shape of Berko Shemets, son of a philandering Jewish father and a Tlingit mother, who has long struggled to fit in and find his identity, but who nonetheless juggles the elements of his life rather better than our lead, who notes with characteristic fatalism:
Unlike Landsman, Berko Shemets has not made a mess of his marriage or his personal life. Every night he sleeps in the arms of his excellent wife, whose love for him is requited, and appreciated by her husband, a steadfast man who never gives her any cause for sorrow or alarm.
As the tone in these two passages would suggest, the noir stylings of the novel are not only present in the surface narrative of world-weary cop and twisty murder mystery. The wry, defeatist self-deprecation of the narrative voice, Landsman's quiet conviction of fighting an impossible battle against overwhelming odds - but doing it anyway, one case at a time, albeit in a way often fogged by alcohol and/or concussion from being beaten up - expresses much of the mood of Sitka at large. There is despair, but it is laced with sanity-saving irony.
Furthermore, Sitka itself is frequently presented as shabby, a soggy cigarette-end of a place:
Night is an orange smear over Sitka, a compound of fog and the light of sodium-vapor streetlamps. It has the translucence of onions cooked in chicken fat. The lamps of the Jews stretch from the slope of Mount Edgecumbe in the west, over the seventy-two infilled islands of the Sound, [...] Landsman can smell fish offal from the canneries, grease from the fry pits at Pearl of Manila, the spew of taxis, an intoxicating bouquet of fresh hat from Grinspoon's Felting two blocks away.
This especially applies to the Sitka of Landsman's usual haunts, which is to say the dives and joints and run-down diners of just such a detective. Chabon never stints on the offputting but enriching sensory detail:
The place is as empty as an off-duty downtown bus and smells twice as bad. Somebody came through recently with a bucket of bleach to paint in some high notes over the Vorsht's steady bass line of sweat and urinals. The keen nose can also detect, above or beneath it all, the coat-lining smell of worn dollar bills.
Things are different on the ultra-Orthodox, insular enclave of Verbov Island ("A stolen BMW in every driveway and a talking chicken in every pot", as one character puts it), but it is precisely this shiny optimism that arouses Landsman's suspicions: clearly they are up to something. As, of course, it proves; the community is, indeed, connected with the apparent suicide of the chess player in Landsman's hotel, in ways I won't spoil, and with a much more bizarre scheme involving a possible-saviour, gone wrong ("A Messiah who actually arrives is no good to anybody. A hope fulfilled is already half a disappointment").
There is undoubtedly a sense in which Yiddish Policemen's Union is a much less significant and transformative work than Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. It is a very different type of book, though, a tightly-focused portrait of a damaged individual and a damaged society told through the lens of a claustrophic genre. It lacks the impact of its masterly predecessor, but it is nevetheless beautifully executed and a thoroughly enjoyable read. It is difficult to imagine many other authors who could combine the virtues of grimy fatalism, deadpan humour, uplifting tenacity and stylish prose quite so well as Chabon.
Landsman considers the things that remain his to lose: a porkpie hat. A travel chess set and a Polaroid of a dead messiah. A boundary map of Sitka, profane, ad hoc, encyclopedic, crime scenes and low dives and chokeberry brambles, printed on the tangles of his brain. Winter fog that blankets the heart, summer afternoons that stretch endless as arguments among Jews. Ghosts of Imperial Russia traced in the onion dome of St Michael's Cathedral, and of Warsaw in the rocking and sawing of a cafe violinist. Canals, fishing boats, islands, stray dogs, canneries, dairy restaurants. The neon marquee of the Baranof Theatre reflected on wet asphalt, colors running like watercolour as you come out of a showing of Welles' Heart of Darkness, which you have just seen for the third time, with the girl of your dreams on your arm.
(who feels obliged to tsk over the slip of historical detail re. the architectural topography of Jersualem: it was the Umayyad dynasty who first built over Temple Mount, not the Abbasids, even if one of the Abbasid Caliphs did have his name inscribed (badly) over the top of 'Abd al-Malik's. Unless this is another little alt-history nod, in which case I feel a bit silly and pedantic. But still, y'know, with a little glow of history geekery, nonetheless.)