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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Murder among the Frozen Chosen

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

The Yiddish Policemen's Union
By Michael Chabon
HarperCollins, 411 pages, 26.95 dollars

A hard-drinking, broken-down-but-tough-as-nails detective investigating the murder of a junkie in a fleabag hotel soon finds there is more to the case than meets the eye. With just his .45, a few wisecracks and lot of stubbornness, the tarnished hero unravels a conspiracy that reaches from the mean streets to the corridors of power.

Michael Chabon's latest novel has everything a good hard-boiled detective story needs, right down to the sexy redheaded dame, the loyal sidekick and sinister crime lord. Except the soundtrack is klezmer instead of smoky jazz, the dame is the detective's ex-wife and boss, the sidekick is a Jewish Tlingit Indian, the crime lord is a Hasidic rabbi and the seedy, sun-drenched streets of Los Angeles have been replaced by the icy snow-covered sidewalks of the soon-to-be-defunct Jewish enclave of Sitka, Alaska.

Homicide cop Meyer Landsman has "the memory of a convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker. When there is crime to fight, Landsman tears around Sitka like a man with his pant leg caught on a rocket."

Landsman's beat is the Yiddish-speaking patch of frigid coast that the Alaskan Settlement Act of 1940 opened up to Europe's persecuted Jews. (On top of being a classic detective tale, this is also a work of alternate history.) The demise of the state of Israel after only three months in 1948 sent another wave of Jews to Sitka, already jammed with war refugees, and the U.S. Congress decided to limit their tenancy of "Jewlaska" to 60 years.

Now the 3.5 million "Frozen Chosen" are facing eviction, and everyone is scrambling to find a safe haven of their own, all except the Hasidic Verbovers, a closed sect that controls most of the crime in the enclave.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union marks the latest step in Chabon's journey from critically esteemed author of literary fiction such as The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys to a teller of two-fisted tales of adventure.

In addition to editing McSweeny's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales and McSweeny's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, Chabon helped write the script for the film Spider-Man 2, and authored a series of comic books based on characters from his 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

This latest novel, with its oddball premise and use of genre conventions, seems more in the latter camp, but the quality of Chabon's prose makes genre irrelevant--whether one prefers The New Yorker or comic books, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is an engrossing and original story told with craft, verve and style, to say nothing of the percussive poetry of the Alaskan shtetl.
Chabon captures the cadences and richness of Yiddish, with the Jewish lingua franca spread as thick as a schmear of sour cream on a latke.

In fact, the biggest speculation here is not historical, but literary, as Chabon seems to have asked himself, "What if Sam Spade had been created by Jackie Mason?"

The steady stream of Yiddish is a little arresting at first, but like any work written in a particular vernacular--think of Roddy Doyle or Irvine Welsh--once your mental ear becomes accustomed, it transports you into the world of the novel.

Not to be a noodge, but you'd have to be meshuga not to enjoy this book--it is so good, you'll plotz.
(The Daily Yomiuri Jul. 14, 2007)

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