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Meshuga Alaska

1.

The magician seemed to promise that something torn to bits might be mended without a seam, that what had vanished might reappear, that a scattered handful of doves or dust might be reunited by a word, that a paper rose consumed by fire could be made to bloom from a pile of ash. But everyone knew that it was only an illusion. The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed in the first place.

—Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Certainly, in almost every Michael Chabon fiction, there is this vanishing—subtractions, desolations, and abandonments; sinister design and rotten luck. In The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), his debonair debut novel, young Art Bechstein suspects that his mother was murdered by mobsters who were really after his father. In Wonder Boys (1995), his graduate school slapstick, Grady Tripp has lost one parent to postpartum complications and another to suicide. In The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), his magnum opus on art, work, buddies, genocide, and the bloodthirstiness of children, Sammy Clayman’s father deserts him (twice!) and Josef Kavalier loses his whole family to the Nazis. In Summerland (2002), his stealing-home baseball fantasy for kids, Ethan Feld’s mother, a veterinarian, dies of cancer, and his father, an inventor, is abducted by wolfboys and mushgoblins. In The Final Solution: A Story of Detection (2004), his sly riff on Sherlock Holmes, a nine-year-old German boy named Linus, an orphan, a mute, and a refugee, wanders the English countryside in 1944 with a parrot that sings strings of numbers that refer to the cattle cars of the Holocaust. In Gentlemen of the Road (2007), his sword-and-sandals serial recently published in The New York Times Magazine, the vagabond physician Zelikman, variously described as a scarecrow and a ghost, drifts through the Dark Ages with a heart turned to stone after the rape and murder of his mother and sister.

Even in Werewolves in Their Youth (1999), a mixed-nut assortment of stories, one boy, fatherless, turns himself into a werewolf; another perishes in a Fourth of July fireworks explosion; a third runs off with his new baby half-brother to save him from their sadistic father; an infant dies in his mother’s arms on a ferry boat; a divorced family therapist is afraid to take a bath with his own daughter; and we get a flabbergasting amount of domestic violence. Then, in a horror tale attributed to the shlockmeister August Van Zorn, whom we first met in Wonder Boys, there’s Yuggog, a cannibal queen in an underground necropolis in bone-pit Pennsylvania, feeding on millworkers and anthropologists. Werewolves also told us that

sex had everything to do with violence, that was true, and marriage was at once a container for the madness between men and women and a fragile hedge against it, as religion was to death, and the law of physics to the immense quantity of utter emptiness of which the universe was made.

This chimes, more or less, with the gloomiest feelings of Meyer Landsman, the brokenhearted alcoholic police detective in Chabon’s wonderful new novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. His father committed suicide, his pilot-sister died in a plane crash, and the loss of his son Django—“a braided pair of chromosomes with a mystery flaw”—has “hollowed” him out. The “most decorated shammes in the District of Sitka,” Alaska, has only two moods, “working and dead.” He overhears people talking about him “in the hushed tones reserved for madmen, assholes, and unwanted guests.” He has practically disappeared into slivovitz, deep-fried pork, and “a slipstream of sorrow.” His ex-wife, Bina Gelbfish, is now his boss at the precinct station, and he misses her like an arm or heart: “She is getting old, and he is getting old, right on schedule, and yet as time ruins them, they are not, strangely enough, married to each other.” When someone tells him, “You take care,” he has to admit, “I don’t really know how to do that.” When everybody tells him not to investigate the execution-style murder of a chess-playing heroin addict, of course he will end up dodging bullets in the Alaskan snow, wondering just how long “it takes hypothermia to kill a Jewish policeman in his underpants.”

But there is much more to any Chabon story than loss and disappointment. By magic, paper roses bloom from piles of ash. He has always played with different ways of telling tales. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was a coming-of-bisexual-age novel, a Gatsby for slackers. Wonder Boys was a sendup of the groves-of-academe roman à clef, winking at Mary McCarthy, Randall Jarrell, and Bernard Malamud even as it tickled the funny bones of magic realism, shlock horror, and quasi-Faulknerian “Mocknapatawpha.” Kavalier & Clay, with escape artist Harry Houdini as the superhero template, was a graphic novel that impudently asked us to imagine all the pictures on our own. Summerland was a boys’ book of pilgrimage and quest, as if Harry Potter had gone to Wrigley Field to save baseball, summertime, storytelling, and his father. The Final Solution married Victorian melodrama to the espionage thriller, plus Goethe and Schiller and Gilbert and Sullivan and honeybees. His magazine serial Gentlemen of the Road owes as much to movies like The Black Rose, with Tyrone Power as an English scholar and Orson Welles as a warlord on his way to see Kublai Khan, and Conan the Barbarian, with Arnold Schwarzenegger punishing the savage tribes for wasting his parents, as it does to Don Quixote and Dr. Zhivago. And now, insouciantly, the sci-fi noir of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union in which everybody insists on speaking Yiddish.

And yet, a closet humanist, he has also always listened to all of his characters with blameless patience, willing to stay up past his bedtime, or sleep over an extra day or two, to entertain extenuations, parse motives, and talk us through our creepy dreams. It is as if Chabon’s protean way with narrative forms extends to human behaviors. He is as sympathetic as he is nosy. Writing a detective novel set in an imaginary Jewish Alaska licenses him to itemize what they wear up there (skullcaps, galoshes, polar bear jammies), what they eat (pickled tomatoes, Chinese donuts, noodle pudding, moose chili), and what they carry in their purses (Tabasco sauce, corkscrews, opera glasses, fish-oil pills). He doesn’t so much digress as he circles around. (In her new biography of Leonard Woolf, Victoria Glendinning observes: “His train of thought always took the scenic route.”) And we usually feel better coming out of his revolving doors than we did going in.

What’s more, Chabon is as whimsical as he is generous: “I can see that some women do indeed look a little like guitars,” Art acknowledges in Pittsburgh. Wonder Boys is, to the best of my knowledge, the only serious novel in which a tuba has a featured role—as a noise, a muse, an umbrella, a symbol of absurdity, and a body-dump. Imagine a comic-book artist, like Josef in Kavalier & Clay, immortalizing the love of his life, Rosa Luxemburg Saks, by turning her in his drawings into the Cimmerian moth goddess from the Book of Lo, at once Druidic and Babylonian, with “immense green wings” and “sensuously furred antennae.” Summerland may not stack up against Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, or “The Children of the Heart” adventure series in David Grossman’s See Under: Love, or “The Chums of Chance” in Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day who bounce around the world in hot-air balloons, but you have to enjoy the whole idea of a baseball game as “nothing but a great slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer day.” And in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, we love Bina almost as much as Landsman does when she chooses in the cafeteria not to order “the baked thermometer” because “they only had rectal,” and when, a few pages later in her ex-husband’s forlorn hotel room, she wants to know: “How do you say ‘shit heap’ in Esperanto?”

Besides, who knew Chabon was so Jewish?

2.

Every generation loses the messiah it has failed to deserve.

—Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

It’s only obvious now how Jewish he has been forever, as Gentlemen of the Road continues to spool itself out in The New York Times Magazine past publication day for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Gentlemen of the Road imagines what Khazaria may have been like, between the Caucasus and the Volga, the Black Sea and the Caspian, after the Khazar kagan, court, and military caste all converted inexplicably to Judaism in 740 AD. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union imagines, as of 2008, a Jewish state in Alaska rather than the Middle East, having trouble with Tlingits instead of Palestinians. But it didn’t always seem as if Chabon were looking backward, forward, and sideways at his Jewishness.

Maybe because we spent so much time back in 1988 wondering whether the author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was or wasn’t gay, we didn’t pay enough attention to Art’s Jewish gangster father, who would have enjoyed shooting the breeze and also the competition with such fellow literary gangsters as Benya, the King of Crime in Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories, and Dutch Schultz, who died full of holes and words in E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate. Maybe because Wonder Boys had so many scandalous things to say about writers and writing programs at a big university, we hurried past that hilarious and horrific sixty-page Seder scene that confirmed Grady, “orphaned and an atheist,” in his feelings about his in-laws and their faith:

I liked the way the Jewish religion seemed, on the whole, to have devoted so much energy and art to finding loopholes in its crazy laws; I liked what this seemed to me to imply about its attitude toward God, that dictatorial and arbitrary old fuck with his curses and his fiats and his yen for the smell of burnt shoulder meat….

Maybe because Kavalier & Clay was such a rollicking encyclopedia on comic-book art, on the “dislocated and non-Euclidean dream spaces,” “the infinitely expandable and contractible interstice of time between the panels of a comic book page” and their “total blending of narration and image”—just like Citizen Kane!—we sort of took Hitler for granted in reading the novel. But Josef the émigré artist didn’t, knowing perfectly well that his comic-book superhero, The Escapist, hadn’t saved his younger brother; knowing that for the Prague Jews he had left behind, there would be no Fortress of Solitude or Bat Cave; knowing even in the navy in Antarctica, while listening to his grandfather sing Schubert on short-wave radio, that Theresienstadt was a German fairy tale for Czechs, “a witch’s house made of candy and gingerbread to lure children and fatten them for the table.” And when Sammy, his old partner in writing comic books, finally does get to look at The Golem, the dark graphic novel Josef has been working on secretly for years, his first stunned reaction is: “So. You have an awful lot of Jewish stuff in here.” This is the Sammy who has already explained to Josef that comic-book superheroes, like Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley, are a Jewish immigrant invention:

Superman, you don’t think he’s Jewish? Coming over from the old country, changing his name like that. Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself.

You have an awful lot of Jewish stuff in here.

Not so much in Summerland, perhaps, with its mix of Norse myth and Native American folklore, its golden bough and sacred tree, the Yggsdrasil, from which ash Ethan makes a magic baseball bat. But The Final Solution resonates with the fate of Jews. Naturally, the little boy who can’t talk will attract the interest of the eighty-nine-year-old former detective who still believes that the essential business of human beings is “the discovery of sense and causality amid the false leads, the noise, the trackless brambles of life.” Alas, in trying to deduce the crime of the century from numbers squawked by a gray parrot, Sherlock Holmes finds that the secret history thrust upon him is so irrational, so senseless, as to deny him his deepest pleasure—the assembling of “a delicate, inexorable lattice of inferences …catching the light in glints and surmises.” We are left with ruined intellect and teary eyes: Sherlock Holmes as Oedipus at Colonus.

Gentlemen of the Road suggests in passing that the Khazars might have decided to be Jewish back in the eighth century so as not to rile their rivalrous Christian and Muslim neighbors. But that’s about all it has to say on the subject, being otherwise preoccupied with elephants, slave markets, dung fires, minarets, red hair, horse butter, Persian binoculars, and battlefield surgery. This seems to me a sadness, not only because there really were Khazars, who got in the way of the Bulgars, Magyars, and Vikings nibbling at Byzantium until at least the twelfth century, before they disappeared into a tendentious book by Arthur Koestler, The Thirteenth Tribe (1976); but also because a remarkable novel has already been written about them—Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars (1988)which should have goaded Chabon into exerting himself more than he has. Surely he would have appreciated what Pavic describes as the Khazar way of praying by weeping—“for tears are a part of God by virtue of always having a bit of salt at the bottom, just as shells hold pearls.”

But if Gentlemen disappoints, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, in which the enduring tropes of the private-eye novel and the science-fiction parallel-universe fantasy are mixed and matched, is triumphant, as if Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick had smoked a joint with I.B. Singer. In the alternative twentieth century conceived by Chabon, Russia has gone through three republics without a revolution. The Holocaust is called, instead, the Destruction. An atom bomb fell on Berlin in 1946. In 1948, Jews in the Holy Land were defeated and savaged by Arabs, so there is no Israel. Enticed by an American settlement act that promised them sixty years of sanctuary before their federal district reverted to Alaska, thousands of Yiddish-speaking Jews arrived by a World War I troop transport at a swamp near the old Russian colony of Sitka, where they were numbered, inoculated, deloused, and tagged like migrant birds, only to discover 50,000 Tlingit Indians already in possession of most of the flat and usable land. After which, nonetheless, crews of young Jewesses in blue head scarves went immediately to work, “singing Negro spirituals with Yiddish lyrics that paraphrased Lincoln and Marx.” Down south, the American first lady is Marilyn Monroe Kennedy, the Cuban war has not gone well, and the Jews of Sitka are called “the Frozen Chosen.”

Jewish Sitka, population 3.2 million, a couple of months shy of the 2008 “Reversion,” is one of the novel’s finest characters, an imaginary city, as palpable as Tel Aviv, as ghostly as Warsaw, as liverish as Buenos Aires, with newspapers, cigarettes, tunnels, and secrets—everything but public transportation. We visit the Hotel Zamenhof on Max Nordau Street for dead bodies, the Hotel Einstein on Adler for nostalgia, the Ringelblum Avenue Baths for conspiracy, Bronfman University for a joke, the Polar-Shtern Kafeteria for pickled crab apple and perhaps a kreplach shaped like the head of Maimonides, and Goldblatt’s Dairy Restaurant to remember a Jewish massacre of Tlingits. We meet momzers, shtarkers, schlossers, grifters, boundary mavens, patzer ex-cons, bottom-rung bet runners like Penguin Simkowitz, mouse-eyed shtinkers like Zigmund Landau (“the Heifetz of Informers”), ultra-Orthodox black-hat wiseguys like the Verbover Hasidim, in charge of gun-running, money-laundering, cigarette smuggling, policy racketeering, and Third Temple fantasizing, and Landsman’s partner in crime-stopping, Berko Shemets, a half-Tlingit whose Indian line goes all the way back to the creation-mythic Raven but who is, at this time in this place, an observant Jew “for his own reasons”: “He is a minotaur, and the world of Jews is his labyrinth.”

After “half a century of a sense of mistakenness,” of a smell on the wind of salmon being canned and what Landsman calls “the Brownian motion of collective woe,” there are suddenly in Sitka silly signs and parodic portents. First, a face, bearded with sidelocks, has shown up two nights running in the shimmer of the aurora borealis. Next, a chicken in the kosher slaughterhouse has turned on the shochet and announced, in Aramaic, the imminent advent of the Messiah. Finally, more seriously, the body of a man named Mendel Shpilman is found dead in a room in Landsman’s Zamenhof. Routine inquiries establish that Mendel was not always “a sockless junkie in a cheap hotel.” The disowned son of a big-shot rabbi, he is said to have had an IQ of 170, to have learned to read Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, and Greek when he was eight years old, to have been, according to the black hats, a “miracle boy” with healing powers and quite possibly the Tzaddik Ha-Dor, “the righteous man of this generation,” maybe even their Messiah. He seems to have been gay; most likely, he hustled chess to buy drugs, probably tied off his arm with his tefillin to find a vein for heroin, and was definitely shot dead next to a chessboard on which the pieces were arrayed as a problem called a “zugzwang,” which is when you have no good moves but you have to move anyway—sort of like the Jews of Sitka on the eve of the Reversion: “They are like goldfish in a bag, about to be dumped back into the big black lake of Diaspora.”

(We might have guessed that Mendel Shpilman’s zugzwang first appeared in the pages of another fabulist, Vladimir Nabokov, in whose imaginary Zembla the language they spoke was emphatically not Yiddish.)

And not only does nobody care about the dead man, not even Mendel’s father, Rebbe Shpilman, the blackest of Verbover hats whose criminality would shame Babel’s Benya, but they have ordained that Landsman not care, either.

3.

Maybe they’re hoping for World War Three [“they” being the US government]. Maybe they want to crank up a new Crusade. Maybe they think if they do this thing, it will make Jesus come back. Or maybe it has nothing to do with any of that, and it’s all really about oil, you know, securing their supply of the stuff once and for all. I don’t know.

—The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

In design, the proposed Third Temple is a restrained display of stonemason might, cubes and pillars and sweeping plazas. Here and there a carved Sumerian monster lends a touch of the barbaric. This is the paper that God left the Jews holding, Landsman thinks, the promise that we have been banging Him a kettle about ever since. The rook that attends the king at the endgame of the world.

—The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

He doesn’t know how one proceeds under the circumstances, except with the certainty, pressed to the heart like a keepsake of love, that in the end nothing really matters.

—The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

Nobody can tell Meyer Landsman not to care about a crime. Crime is all he can bring himself to care about. He is otherwise “a disbeliever by trade and inclination.” His personal life and the history of the Jews have persuaded him that “heaven is kitsch, God a word, and the soul, at most, the charge on your battery.” But responsibility is another matter, and accountability, too, and vulgar curiosity as well. Take away his badge and gun and he’ll nose around for answers anyway, flashing his Hands of Esau Yiddish policemen’s union card as a credential. Somehow, the death of his sister and the murder of Mendel are connected. Something weird is going on at the Beth Tikkun Retreat Center, which is less like an honor ranch rebab for rich Jewish addicts than a paramilitary facility for Zionist revanchists. Some ulterior meaning nags at him from Mendel Shpilman’s zugzwang. And why are people talking behind his back in Hebrew? To Bina, the boss who used to be a wife, he tries to explain himself:

Bina, I did not know this man. He was put in my way. I was given the opportunity to know him, I suppose, but I declined it. If this man and I had gotten to know each other, possibly we would have become pals. Maybe not. He had his thing with heroin, and that was probably enough for him. It usually is. But whether I knew him or not, and whether we could have grown old together holding hands on a sofa down in the lobby, is neither here nor there. Somebody came into this hotel, my hotel, and shot that man in the back of his head while he was off in dreamland. And that bothers me…. All these hard-lucks paying rent on a pull-down bed and a sheet of steel bolted to the bathroom wall, for better or worse, they’re my people now. I can’t honestly say I like them very much. Some of them are all right. Most of them are pretty bad. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to let somebody walk in here and put a bullet in their heads.

This is classic Sam Spade–Philip Marlowe–Lew Archer stuff—the American private eye, not a declassed aristocrat like Poe’s Dupin, nor a coke-addled scientist fiddler like Conan Doyle’s Holmes, nor a titled-gentry Wimsey, a nosy-genteel Miss Marple, or a world-weary European bureaucrat cop like Maigret, Van der Valk, or Martin Beck, but a hard-boiled, soft-hearted, smart-mouth gumshoe, the last romantic in a corrupt world—an omelet of Saint George, Saint Francis of Assisi, and sweet-and-sour Parsifal, a mixed grill of Galahad and Robin Hood, a submarine sandwich of stormbird and psychotherapist. The private eye weeps for you, even a sockless junkie. He evens the odds of the poor and weak against the rich and violent, the organized criminals, neighborhood bullies, corporate goons, ministries of fear, drug cartels, death squads, and global conspiracies, usually with a jazz score. To these savories, Chabon has added the Flying Dutchman and the Wandering Jew, and it works so well we want it to go on forever, every sorrowful secret just another reason to feel lousy about life.

Except that there’s also Bina. She is under instructions to bury the Mendel Shpilman case, but Bina is one of those biblical matriarchs, like Rachel or Sarah, “who carry their homes in an old cowhide bag, on the back of a camel, in the bubble of air at the center of their brains.” Ambitious as she is to keep her job after the Reversion, there is a reason she married Landsman in the first place, before they lost their child. And who is it that has issued these instructions from above? How come they want the lid on? Why are the Federal District pols, the Verblover black hats, and the Washington, D.C., globocops so suddenly in cahoots? What’s the meaning of the counterfeit red heifer spotted by Landsman grazing in the Indian outback? Who cut a deal with the Tlingits, in exchange for what? And why, oh why, kill Mendel, who had surely fallen so far out of the world as not to be in anybody’s way?

As in any gratifying mystery, the answers to these questions are often, although not always, a surprise. It is not surprising, for instance, to find that zealots are still playing what the Israeli novelist David Grossman has called the game of “Blow Up the Dome of the Rock and Wait One Turn for the Arab World’s Reaction.” Nor is it surprising that, with Bina covering Landsman’s back, the red heifer has a harder time fooling anybody. But the red heifer didn’t kill Mendel, and neither did the usual suspects. You will have to keep on reading the delicious prose. Everything fits inside with a satisfying snap, like the hasp on a jewel box or the folding of a fan. And left in the air, like smoke, are ghosts and grace notes. As much as Chabon encourages us to think about warriors and farmers, Hebrew and Yiddish, “Yids” and Tlingits, Israelis and Palestinians, or, for that matter, Boers, Zulus, Puritans, Iroquois, homelands, land grabs, checkpoints, transit camps, penal colonies, 9/11, and Iraq, he is also fishing in the deepest waters. Landsman has to defend himself eventually to the puppetmaster geopoliticians, their petit-guignol inquisitors, and their hired thugs. He is not in the least apologetic for having smudged their papyrus blueprint:

All at once he feels weary of ganefs and prophets, guns and sacrifices and the infinite gangster weight of God. He’s tired of hearing about the promised land and the inevitable bloodshed required for its redemption. “I don’t care what is written. I don’t care what supposedly got promised to some sandal-wearing idiot whose claim to fame is that he was ready to cut his own son’s throat for the sake of a hare-brained idea. I don’t care about red heifers and patriarchs and locusts. A bunch of old bones in the sand. My homeland is in my hat. It’s in my ex-wife’s tote bag.”

Here The Yiddish Policemen’s Union reminds me of the only other north-of-the-border Jewish novel in its major league, Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here (1990). In Richler’s razzle-dazzle, where the Gurskys bore a startling resemblance to the Bronfmans from whom all Seagram’s flows, we got 150 years of arctic sky, black ravens, caribou bones, Old Testament loonytunes, Lévi-Strauss creation myths, Karl Marxist confabulations, and Gimpel the Fool on permafrost. Everything that wasn’t Oedipal would prove to be cannibalistic. And Solomon Gursky himself would seem to have agreed with Landsman, in his last word—IN CAPITAL LETTERS, NO LESS!—to an increasingly dubious biographer in 1978: “THE WORLD CONTINUES TO PAY A PUNISHING TOLL FOR OUR JEWISH DREAMERS.”

And what are these Jewish dreamers waiting for, if not the Sermon on the Mount or the Communist Manifesto? They are waiting, we are told here, “for the time to be right, or the world to be right, or, some people say, for the time to be wrong and the world to be as wrong as it can be.” For whom are they waiting? The “despised and rejected of men”; “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”; “A bum. A scholar. A junkie. Even a shammes.” Have we met such a one? Well, yes. To the private eye as Wandering Jew, it seems to me that Chabon has added the superheroics of Kafka and Freud, the ethics of Maimonides and Spinoza, the politics of Emma Goldman and Grace Paley, the mysticisms of Martin Buber and Simone Weil, a paper rose and a magic bat. Landsman himself, abused as much as Jim Rockford and Jesus Christ, is the righteous man of his generation, the Northern Exposure Tzaddik Ha-Dor.

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