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From Pittsburgh to Sitka: On Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

ISSUE:  Summer 2007

 The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon. 
HarperCollins, May 2007. $26.95

“You haven’t read any Michael Chabon?” said some guy in some bar in New York, in the twilighty summerland before 9/11. I’d landed in the city five minutes before, suitcase trembling in hand. He gave the name a French twist: Mee-SHELL Shah-BOHN. “You’ve got to read Mee-SHELL Shah-BOHN!” “Check at the Strand,” he advised, but instead I bought a paperback copy of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay from a folding table on the street, the same Empire State Building that loomed on the cover looming over me. For the weeks of my reading, New York was electrified against that stormy blue sky, trapped improbably in 1940. Banana-eating boys darted into alleys everywhere I looked, scurried onto elevators, tumbled into windows. It was a while until I learned how to pronounce the author’s name (“Shea as in Stadium, Bon as in Jovi,” not French but Jewish), let alone find the Strand, but that summer I learned the geography of a more amazing, more adventurous (and safer) New York.

His gift for creating another time and place is just part of what won Kavalier & Clay the Pulitzer Prize and Chabon a wide and devoted audience. But no reader of his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, could have anticipated, in 1988, the book that would bring together comics, the World’s Fair, Salvador Dalí, Antarctica, Houdini, and the Holocaust. This isn’t because his early work wasn’t also notable, but because Chabon’s career has matured in a distinctive and unpredictable way. By the time Kavalier & Clay appeared, in 2000, the “Also by Michael Chabon” list already included his debut Fitzgeraldesque bildungsroman, the pitch-perfect New Yorker stories of A Model World (1991), the academic satire Wonder Boys (1995), and Werewolves in Their Youth (1999), which collected a number of stunning traditional stories but also revealed a fascination with genre forms. We have since had the children’s fantasy novel Summerland (2002) as well as the Sherlock Holmes–inspired novella The Final Solution (2004). None of these books, however—not even the kitchen-sink coup of Kavalier & Clay—is quite as unprecedented as The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. It is the newest title in a rich and diverse oeuvre that spans nearly two decades—an event worthy of closer inspection.

Michael Chabon was twenty-one and fresh out of the University of Pittsburgh when he began his first novel—about a summer in the life of a college graduate, named Art Bechstein, who falls in love with a man and a woman—and he was a graduate student at the University of California–Irvine when he completed it for his M.F.A. thesis in 1987. His professor, MacDonald Harris, secretly submitted it to his agent, the agent sold it for a hefty advance, and William Morrow published it to buzz and acclaim. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh became a national bestseller.

“Here is a first novel by a talented young writer,” Alice McDermott wrote in the New York Times,

that is full of all the delights, and not a few of the disappointments, inherent in any early work of serious fiction. There is the pleasure of a fresh voice and a keen eye, of watching a writer clearly in love with language and literature, youth and wit, expound and embellish upon the world as he sees it, balanced by a scarcity of well-developed characters and a voice so willing to please that it seldom goes beyond the story’s surface.

These criticisms are easy to dispute. While the characters sometimes speak more like guests at a garden party in West Egg than at a college kegger in Pittsburgh (“Say! Hi, Takeshi”), they’re no less developed than, say, Jay Gatsby. Chabon develops the hell out of his characters; whether we could identify them outside of their world is another question.

The implicit and more persistent complaint—that the book feels young—is undeniable in retrospect, if not particularly noteworthy. Despite its violent conclusion, the book is primarily interested in the poolside particulars of its twentysomething cast: meeting for lunch, sharing a “marijuana cigarette,” generally enjoying a “season of dilated time and of women all in disarray.” But Art Bechstein (and his author) would be the first to own up to adolescent navel-gazing: the book is unabashedly about youth. On the heels of reading The Great Gatsby, Chabon set out, he wrote in the New York Review of Books in 2005, to create a book “about friendship and its impossibility, about self-inventors and dreamers of giant dreams, about complicated women and the men who make them that way. . . . I wanted to write stories for anyone, anywhere, living at any time in the history of the world. (Twenty-one, I was twenty-one!)”

So he was. And yet the book is these things. While its reach now seems shorter than Kavalier & Clay’s, the achievements of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh still are plenty: the recognition of ourselves in youth just as we’re leaving it behind, a dazzling reflection on the miracle of summer, the fine-tooth plotting of the sexual self. (This last led many of Chabon’s readers to believe he was gay; in fact, he is married to the author Ayelet Waldman, with whom he has four children.) Perhaps these are the reasons why such a relatively plotless novel is still so appealing nineteen years later, not to mention so adaptable (as are all of Chabon’s works) to the big screen. (The film has wrapped shooting in “Shitsburgh,” as star Sienna Miller dubbed the city, and is coming soon to a theater near you.)

But the best thing about Chabon’s first novel, and the most untranslatable, and its more interesting resemblance to Fitzgerald, is not the story but the language. Chabon was aware of this distinction, and looked to the latter aspect to spearhead the novel’s “sense of wonder”: “If my subject matter couldn’t do it—if I wasn’t writing about people who sailed through neutron stars or harnessed suns together—then it was going to fall to my sentences themselves to open up the heads of my readers and decant into them enough crackling plasma to light up the eye sockets for a week.” This is just what his sentences do. Take these two, for example:

It’s the beginning of the summer and I’m standing in the lobby of a thousand-story grand hotel, where a bank of elevators a mile long and an endless red row of monkey attendants in gold braid wait to carry me up, up, up through the suites of moguls, of spies, and of starlets, to rush me straight to the zeppelin mooring at the art deco summit where they keep the huge dirigible of August tied up and bobbing in the high winds. On the way to the shining needle at the top I will wear a lot of neckties, I will buy five or six works of genius on 45 rpm, and perhaps too many times I will find myself looking at the snapped spine of a lemon wedge at the bottom of a drink.

These were the first words he typed, in 1985, on his Osborne computer on a plywood desk in the crawl space of his mother’s house. Twenty-one, he was twenty-one!

In the seven years before the publication of his next novel, Wonder Boys, Chabon published A Model World and Other Stories and also began and abandoned a thousand-page epic on baseball and architecture called “Fountain City”—not half as long as the tome-in-progress of Grady Tripp, the hero of Wonder Boys. While Tripp—a pot-smoking Pittsburgh professor who’s knocked up his mistress—is not a stand-in for his author, Chabon, too, had been at the mercy of the endless possibilities of fiction:

I had too much to write: too many fine and miserable buildings to construct and streets to name and clock towers to set chiming, too many characters to raise up from the dirt like flowers whose petals I peeled down to the intricate frail organs within, too many terrible genetic and fiduciary secrets to dig up and bury and dig up again, too many divorces to grant, heirs to disinherit, trysts to arrange, letters to misdirect into evil hands, innocent children to slay with rheumatic fever, women to leave unfulfilled and hopeless, men to drive to adultery and theft, fires to ignite at the hearts of ancient houses.

Given the weight of this burden, it’s a victory in itself that Chabon didn’t break under it, and brilliantly appropriate and entirely forgivable that he invented a character to shoulder it for him. Critics seemed to think so, too. “Wonder Boys, ” Jonathan Yardley wrote in the Washington Post, “is yet another forward step. More ambitious than either of its predecessors, it attempts to locate and define the place of the writer not merely in a society that regards him as an oddity but also within the murky territory of his own mind and heart.” It does so through the chiseled, toned, Michelangelo sentences trademarked by Chabon in Mysteries but now somewhat cooled.

“I guess inevitably I must have grown up,” Chabon said in an interview about his development between his first two novels. “This, I suppose, has emerged in my prose style, which I think is less concerned than formerly with pyrotechnics and showing my chops.” Wonder Boys (adapted into a film starring Michael Douglas in 2000) is fueled also by the self-deprecating humor vital to any writing about writers: “Let’s just say that I’d read Kerouac the year before, and had conceived the usual picture of myself as an outlaw-poet-pathfinder, a kind of Zen-masterly John C. Frémont on amphetamines with a marbled dime-store pad of lined paper in the back pocket of my denim pants. I still see myself that way, I suppose, and I’m probably none the better for it.”

It’s difficult to say just how Chabon saw himself during the writing of Wonder Boys, but it’s safe to say similar thoughts crossed his mind. “The truth was,” he wrote of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, “I had come to a rough patch in my understanding of what I wanted my writing to be. I was in a state of confusion.” With Wonder Boys, he devoted a book to that state of confusion—the hunt for and evasion of a writer’s identity, complicated by an editor, two students, a transvestite, a dead dog, and a jacket that once belonged to Marilyn Monroe. Mysteries was written by a college graduate about a college graduate; Wonder Boys was written by a frustrated writer about a frustrated writer. Both were monologic meditations on subjects within an arm’s reach, and this was Yardley’s single caveat:

Though Chabon has demonstrated a keen understanding of other people’s minds and lives, thus far his preoccupation has been with fictional explorations of his own. It is time for him to move on, to break away from the first person and explore larger worlds. His apprenticeship is done; it has been brilliant, but the books as yet unwritten are the ones in which we will learn just how far this singular writer can go.

Chabon agreed. “I took that to heart,” he said in another interview. “It chimed with my own thoughts. I had bigger ambitions.” In some form, he always had. He’d attempted to break into larger material in “Fountain City,” and even before he started Mysteries he was worried about deserting the ambition and adventure of the genre fiction he’d loved as a kid:

Was this really the kind of writer I was going to become? A writer under the influence of Fitzgerald and Roth, of books that took place in cities like Pittsburgh where people took moral instruction from the songs of Adam and the Ants? What about that sequence of stories I’d been planning about the astronomer Percival Lowell exploring the canals of Mars?

By the end of the millennium, Chabon began to revisit the tales of his childhood, first with “In the Black Mill,” the final story in Werewolves in Their Youth. Chabon’s alter ego, the horror writer August Van Zorn, had been introduced in Wonder Boys as mentor to Grady Tripp, and is revived here as the author of the archaeological thriller set in a “satanic mill” in 1948.

But even this surprise amalgamation of fantasy and history could not have prepared us for the bombshell of Chabon’s third novel. As the exuberant title suggests, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is an audacious, daredevil doorstop of a book, “a big, ripe, excitingly imaginative novel,” according to Janet Maslin in the New York Times. Here, the genre from which Chabon borrows is comic books, and the novel not only embodies their larger-than-life spirit, it also takes them as its subject. Beginning in the late 1930s, the book follows Jewish cousins Sammy Clay and Joe Kavalier through their creation of the Escapist, a superhero whose powers of evasion are known poignantly by Joe, who sneaked out of Prague in a coffin, leaving his family to fend for themselves. But no Martians here—Chabon doesn’t retreat that far into genre fiction—instead, he ingeniously summons history’s most infamous intruders, the Nazis. As with The Fortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem (a friend of Chabon’s and the writer most like him), the superheroic feat of Kavalier & Clay is this balance of the marvelous (magic tricks, a golem) with the utterly real (a brother drowned to the bottom of the sea)—and the quietly insistent evidence that the former allows us to bear the latter. Never is this fact more striking than when, in the vast white aftershock of his brother’s death, Joe enlists to fight the Nazis and ends up stationed in Antarctica. In one of the most breathtaking scenes in the book, Joe makes another narrow escape, this time from the carbon monoxide that, except for him and a single dog, kills all the living things in his quarters:

His blood filled with oxygen, quickening the nerves of his eyes, and the dark dull sky over his head seemed to thicken suddenly with stars. He reached an instant of bodily equipoise, during which the rapture of his survival to breathe and be burned by the wind perfectly balanced the agony of his exposure to it. Then the shivering took hold, in a single crippling shudder that racked his whole body, and he cried out, and fell to his knees on the ice.

Yardley was right: the best was yet to come.

Kavalier & Clay (which Chabon has scripted for a Stephen Daldry film that remains in preproduction) brought Chabon’s talents to a towering new level. As he later explained, “I discovered strengths I had hoped that I possessed—the ability to pull off multiple points of view, historical settings, the passage of years—but which had never been tested before.” Spanning over six hundred pages and fifteen years, vigorously plotted and testosterone-charged, the book is a triumph of choreography and of research and of that most lasting of forms, the folktale.

It was an accomplishment that freed Chabon to experiment further. He did so first with Summerland, a novel for young readers about a twelve-year-old baseball player who saves the world, with a supporting cast that includes a talking werefox, a Sasquatch, and a tribe of miniature Indians. To encounter Chabon writing for children feels simultaneously familiar and exotic (“The tantrums of giants, are, of course, quite literally the stuff of legend”), like spotting your spouse in traffic. And yet, given his renewed interest in fantasy writing, it’s hard to conceive of a more suitable venue for his imagination.

In 2003, bored with his own stories, “plotless and sparkling with epiphanic dew,” he edited the volume McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. He continued to miss “the ghost story,” he wrote in the introduction, “the horror story; the detective story; the story of suspense, terror, fantasy, or the macabre; the sea, adventure, spy, war, or historical story; the romance story. Stories, in other words, with plots.” In 2004 he established the August Van Zorn Prize, “awarded to the short story that most faithfully and disturbingly embodies the tradition of the weird short story as practiced by Edgar Allan Poe and his literary descendants”; the winner was published in McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, which Chabon also edited.

In The Final Solution, published first in the Paris Review (where it received the Aga Khan Prize) and then in illustrated hardcover, he applied the classic “story of detection” to novella form, with magical results. Combining the historical texture of Kavalier & Clay (escape from the Nazis is also the inciting action of this story, this time by a nine-year-old mute) with the whimsy of Summerland, it’s also, interestingly, the most formal of Chabon’s works, perhaps owing to its English setting.

Pittsburgh, New York, Summerland, the South Downs. What’s an author who’s covered this much territory to do next?

“It’s not much,” says Detective Meyer Landsman, the hero of Michael Chabon’s fourth novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. “But it’s home.”

“No, it isn’t,” says the woman whose murdered son Landsman must redeem before his badge, his station, and his homeland are forever revoked. “But I’m sure it makes it easier for you to think so.”

In fact, there is little Landsman can do to convince himself that he has somewhere to call home. In two months, Sitka—Chabon’s fictional Jewish settlement in the Alaskan wilderness—will be no more, leaving most of its population of five million to flee to Canada, to Madagascar, to anywhere that will receive them, or to apply for a green card to remain in the only home they know. Landsman, a man without a land, flops in a fleabag hotel, works in a series of modular buildings, and can’t see past the new year. As for the past, his father, a gifted chess player, killed himself when Landsman was a child; his sister flew her plane into a mountain; and going on three years ago, he divorced his wife Bina (a fellow detective who has been assigned to serve as Landsman’s boss for the next two months) after the couple made the decision to abort their child, who may or may not have developed disastrous abnormalities. For now, all Landsman can rely on are his shot glass, his partner and cousin Berko, and his work—in particular, the case of one “Emanuel Lasker,” a chess player, heroin addict, and would-be Messiah shot in the back of the head, downstairs from Landsman in the Hotel Zamenhof.

A detective novel, then. A noir fiction of some familiarity. Landsman is self-described as hard-boiled, his Uncle Hertz is reading a Yiddish translation of Chandler, and the good people of Sitka are prone to the dry, devastating one-liners of Philip Marlowe (“If they named a dump like this after me, I’d haunt it, too”). This is a happy surprise but not a very big one, given Chabon’s previous experimentation with the mystery form. What is very surprising is that this mystery takes place in the crawl spaces, diners, limousines, and lobbies of a city that doesn’t exist—but very well could. From 1938 to 1940, a Congressional proposal supported by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes attempted to allocate part of the Territory of Alaska for the settlement of Jewish refugees seeking asylum from Nazi Europe. The King-Havenner Bill, also known as the Alaska Development Plan, failed, largely due to objections by Alaskans. But Chabon, happening across this historical footnote, was absorbed by “the idea of a world with no Israel, where Jews are moved completely onto a side track of history.” While Philip Roth’s counterfactual The Plot Against America reimagines Jewish history through an autobiographical account of his native Newark, the otherworldliness of Chabon’s novel is so complete it may as well take place on the moon. (“You want to go to the moon with me, Bina? I hear they still take Jews.”) Set sixty years after Sitka is granted “interim status,” The Yiddish Policemen’s Union imagines not just the modern face of this Yiddish-speaking settlement, but its inevitable dissolution. “Strange times,” goes the book’s refrain, “to be a Jew.”

The imminent Reversion, however, allows for reflection on the whole of Sitka’s history, in which the Landsman family has played a prominent role, and which, given the finely detailed embroidery of its evidence—the vestiges of Esperanto, the topography of its streets, the odors of its children (Sitka is an odorous place)—one is positive has occurred. The turns this alternative history has taken are unaccountable but slight: Landsman smokes “papiros,” calls people “sweetness,” and has a soft spot for “Filipino-style Chinese donuts.” How easy it would have been, given the dizzy freedom of what-ifs, to elect a female president, sink Florida, resuscitate Percival Lowell and those canals on Mars! How wonderfully restrained and diamond-sharp are these facts instead: whenever Uncle Hertz drives over the Tshernovits Bridge, he rubs his jaw, remembering the two teeth he lost in a road gang constructing the Sitka Airfield; Landsman’s mother, Freydl, was “one of those Polar Bear kids who handled their own feelings of guilt at having escaped the filth, the starvation, the ditches and killing factories by offering survivors a constant stream of advice, information, and criticism disguised as morale boosting. As if the choking, low-hanging black pall of the Destruction could be lifted by one determined kibitzer.” Freydl could be the spokesperson for early Sitka optimism (“It may not be the Promised Land,” reads a visitor’s guide to the ’77 Sitka World’s Fair, “but it is truly the Land of Promise”), which has been drained from Landsman’s generation and that of his nephew:

Goldy is wearing his polar bear jammies, the height of retrospective chic for an Alaskan Jewish kid. Polar bears, snowflakes, igloos, the northern imagery that was so ubiquitous when Landsman was a boy, it’s all back in style again. Only this time it seems to be meant ironically. Snowflakes, yes, the Jews found them here, though thanks to greenhouse gases there are measurably fewer now 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.

For all of the book’s many accomplishments—the engrossing setting; the grotesque characters; the keenly coordinated scenes of adventure; the sly, meticulous chess game of the plot; the slow unveiling of fanaticism, corruption, and betrayal—its most wrenching (and funniest) may be the quiet drama that takes place in a bed Landsman shares, while recovering at Berko’s house from a bullet wound, with this pajama-wearing child. Fleeing a nightmare, the boy scampers into his parents’ bed and spends the night tossing and turning, clawing his toes into his uncle Landsman’s back. “You have a serious toenail problem among your youth,” Landsman says to Goldy’s mother in the morning, but Landsman’s problem, of course, is that he has no bed of his own, no wife, and no son. The termination of his child’s life (a decision Chabon, too, had to face) is a loss that haunts the novel as largely as the termination of Sitka, an “interim status” that can never be reverted.

And yet there is fun to be had. If the voice of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is, as McDermott wrote, “the voice of a young writer with tremendous skill as he discovers, joyously, just what his words can do,” the voice of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is that of an experienced writer with tremendous skill, who has grown comfortable with what his words can do and, damn it, is going to have a good time. Take, for example, the description of the patriarch of the Sitka black hats:

Rabbi Heskel Shpilman is a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running. A little kid lumped him together, a mob of kids, blind orphans who never laid eyes on a man. They clumped the dough of his arms and legs to the dough of his body, then jammed his head down on top. A millionaire could cover his Rolls-Royce with the fine, black silk-and-velvet expanse of the Rebbe’s frock coat and trousers. It would require the brain-strength of the eighteen greatest sages in history to reason through the arguments against and in favor of classifying the Rebbe’s massive bottom as either a creature of the deep, a man-made structure, or an unavoidable act of God. If he stands up, or if he sits down, it doesn’t make any difference in what you see.

It’s everything a metaphor shouldn’t be—enormous, extravagant, distracting—and yet, in the case of Rabbi Heskel Shpilman, it couldn’t be more precise. It’s built just as Rabbi Shpilman is. A less-assured writer would abandon the description after a sentence. This is not to say that The Yiddish Policemen’s Union makes a habit of taking risks. In some ways, the book is a relatively modest endeavor—neither short nor long, narrated in the present tense and from a third-person point of view that, other than a few skillful omniscient asides and accounts from other characters, remains Landsman’s. Especially in an age where every graduate student is trying a hand at the genre fiction Chabon helped to resurrect, it would be a disappointment to see him straining to outdo the ambition of Kavalier & Clay, and a great relief that he does not.

What we have instead is a detective novel that is somehow Chabon’s most affecting work. It is a work of deep imagination—a truly speculative fiction—that advances the Jewish story, allowing us to carry for a moment the heavy bags of dispossession, the weight of knowing, “Nobody gives a damn about us, stuck up here between Hoonah and Hotzeplotz.”

*  *  *  *

If these four novels have made Michael Chabon one of the most celebrated writers of his generation (in 1999 the New Yorker named him one of the twenty best writers under forty), it is his other contributions to the world of words that have distinguished him as a truly literary figure. He has written for DC Comics, co-scripted Spider-Man 2, and created the comic book The Escapist (based on Kavalier and Clay’s invention and published by Dark Horse Comics from 2004 to 2006). He has written incisively on Cormac McCarthy and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for the New York Review of Books, contributed a regular column to Details (covering subjects from Legos to the Future), and composed essays for publications ranging from Rolling Stone to Gourmet. He’s edited anthologies (including Best American Short Stories 2005), written numerous introductions and afterwords and appreciations and the letters to the editor, given countless talks and readings and signings. Chabon has penned for himself an independent and idiosyncratic career. It’s no wonder that he’s developed a repetitive strain injury and a loyal following of comic book lovers, baseball fans, gays, Jews, and children. He is a terrifically miscellaneous writer.

The murdered man at the center of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union “had the kind of mind that could hold and consider contradictory propositions without losing its balance.” This ambidexterity is Chabon’s talent, too—his ability to rub his belly and pat his head simultaneously. From the beginning, he has “been struggling to find a way to accommodate my taste for the genre fiction I had been reading with the greatest pleasure for the better part of my life—fantasy, horror, crime, and science fiction—to the way that I had come to feel about the English language, which was that it and I seemed to have something going.” In a wonderful way, this struggle of battling instincts has defined the development of Chabon’s career: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Percival Lowell locked in a game of chess. To our great luck, neither has won yet. Instead we have a series of Zwischenzugs—defined in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union as “an unexpected move in the orderly unfolding of a game.”

There may be little orderly unfolding in the career of Michael Chabon, but each new work is nothing if not unexpected.

But then, from Chabon, what else would we expect?


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