"These are strange times to be a Jew."
In The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon's new novel, characters utter that phrase with frequency – and with ample justification. After all, their homeland, a tiny portion of Alaska (in this universe, the Jews lost the 1948 war and were sent scurrying for real estate wherever it could be found), will soon "revert" back to the United States government as part of a 60-year settlement scheduled to expire in two months.
Echoing Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America," Chabon has taken a potential but unrealized historical twist and fashioned it into an entertaining literary novel, one that asks many pertinent questions and, in its alternate reality, seems a perfect fit for the post-9/11 world.
The novel accomplishes this in the guise of a noir detective story. The detective, Meyer Landsman, a burned-out, drunken nonbeliever, lives in a dilapidated hotel filled with fellow alcoholics and drug addicts, not to mention criminals and prostitutes.
Landsman, at the behest of the Hotel Zamenhof's manager, is summoned to investigate a murder in one of the rooms. He finds a heroin junkie who has been shot in the head, with the remnants of an unfinished chess match stationed nearby.
All of this takes place in the district of Sitka, the fictional Jewish homeland set up by the Americans. Chabon has all kinds of fun with his revised history, from the issuance of "Ickes" passports (a nod to the former FDR aide) to the Hotel Einstein, where men gather to play chess and gossip. In passing, Chabon winks as he makes casual mention of former first lady "Marilyn Monroe Kennedy in her pink pillbox hat, with mesmeric spirals for eyes."
Meanwhile, as Landsman, a 20-year veteran, and his partner, Berko Shemets, puzzle out a series of menacing episodes, Chabon carves out daring notions certain to stir debate.
Seder meets sinister
A fictional sect of radical Jews, bearing a strong resemblance to the real-life Lubavitchers, aims to exact revenge on the Palestinians while all but dismissing the legitimacy of the rest of the Jewish citizenry. This sect, known as the Verbovers, controls the Alaskan Jewish settlement with ruthless efficiency and rampant crime.
Throughout the novel, Chabon reiterates the theme of wayward peoples, disputed territories, and the relentless destruction ushered in by radicals of any derivation. Instead of battling Palestinians, the Jews in Chabon's novel become enmeshed in a bitter, infinite feud with the native Indians of Alaska, a not-so-subtle reminder of Middle East bombings and battles.
Even those who care little for religious introspection will find plenty here to keep turning the pages. Chabon's dexterity remains impressive; he juggles the Big Ideas with brisk narrative and amusing set pieces without breaking a sweat.
The murder victim may, or may not, be the messiah. And it turns out his death could be linked with that of Meyer Landsman's sister, a fearless pilot and voice of reason in Meyer's eternally dysfunctional family.
Even when the novel becomes convoluted in its latter stages, Chabon's deft writing still sparkles. He seems incapable of writing a bad sentence, even when describing something as banal as the coffee maker. "The drip-filter coffee maker," he writes, "hawks and spits like a decrepit Jewish policeman after ten flights of steps."
In the "Alyeska" of Chabon's invention, the official Jewish language turns out to be Yiddish, not Hebrew. As the 60-year settlement comes to a close, sparking fears and uncertainty as to where the population will go once America reclaims the territory, Sitka's candidacy for statehood fails, stirring headlines like "No Jewlaska, Lawmakers Promise."
Lest all this sound too politically and religiously rigorous, it's worth noting that Chabon remains an engaging storyteller above all else. He delights in putting Landsman in ridiculous scenarios – and then helping him find a brief respite.
A terrified run through the Alaskan snow with little beyond underwear to fight the elements? Done. A "Monk"-like fear of the dark? Yep, he's got that, too.
One of the novel's best characters is Landsman's ex-wife, Bina, who also happens to be his new, no-nonsense boss. Her disdain and occasional empathy for Landsman's demise keep the drunken detective's cynical ramblings from eclipsing what is, in the end, a redemptive investigation into a murder case everyone wants closed.
The final third of Chabon's novel becomes cumbersome. His ambition gets the better of him, and the unraveling of the mystery becomes overheated in the manner of a "Mission: Impossible" plot.
Still, Chabon demonstrates once again with "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" that he ranks among the most important, and interesting, contemporary American novelists. And, although his latest novel may not dazzle with quite the same charm as "The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," Chabon remains a literary wonder boy nonetheless.
•Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.