LET’S begin with an uncomfortable question: What has Michael Chabon been up to for the last seven years? Certainly he’s been writing; in 2002, he published “Summerland,” a lengthy baseball fantasy for young readers, and two years later, his novella “The Final Solution” imagined Sherlock Holmes as an old man. He’s also edited a couple of anthologies and created a series of comic books featuring the Escapist, the superhero he invented for his novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2001.
For a writer of Chabon’s ambition, however, projects like these seem ancillary at best. His 1995 novel “Wonder Boys” -- by turns, the funniest and bleakest novel about the writing life ever set to paper -- is a deft examination of the rigors of expression, of the way art does not so much save as complicate your life. “Kavalier & Clay” eclipses the line between literature and genre fiction, integrating elements of myth, history, pop culture and Jewish identity in a nearly seamless weave. What’s exciting about these books is their sense that fiction can do anything, that it can be provocative and graceful, challenging and flat-out, foot-stomping fun. It’s as if Kurt Vonnegut and Philip Roth started a rock ‘n’ roll band; this is writing that makes you want to get up and dance.
Chabon’s new novel, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” is, finally, a spiritual descendant of “Kavalier & Clay,” a book that expands on the sensibility of the earlier novel and its roots in Jewish storytelling. It is very good -- let’s just say that at the outset -- a larger-than-life folk tale set in an alternate universe version of the present where issues of exile and belonging, of identity, nationality, freedom and destiny are examined through a funhouse mirror that renders them opaque and recognizable all at once.
The setup is a series of speculations: What if, as Franklin Roosevelt once suggested, a safe zone had been established in Alaska under the protection of the United States for European Jews escaping Hitler? What if this “Federal District of Sitka” had grown and developed until its population was in the millions, a country within a country, as it were? What if Israel had collapsed in 1948, mere months after independence, leaving many Jews with nowhere else to turn?
And what if, 60 years later, Sitka was about to face a process called “reversion,” in which its territories would be returned and its Jews cast back into the Diaspora, a Diaspora in which the desirability of their presence was not entirely assured?
This is, of course, the stuff of fable and, indeed, of a particularly Jewish kind of fable: the exaggeration, the extended improvisation, the joke. It’s a lineage that begins with the legendary fool’s paradise of Chelm, and extends to more modern Jewish fabulists like Franz Kafka and Groucho Marx. And yet, for all that “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” has in common with this tradition, Chabon is after a quintessentially American synthesis, in which immigrant heritage blends with mass culture fascinations like science fiction and noir.
“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is a murder mystery, the story of police detective Meyer Landsman and his attempt to unravel the execution-style killing of a junkie named Mendel Shpilman, found dead in his room in a Sitka SRO. (In one of the book’s best details, Meyer discovers tefillin -- a leather case containing passages from the Torah attached to a strap -- with the dead man’s drug paraphernalia. “There’s a new one,” an investigator says. “Tying off with tefillin.”) Shpilman is the son of the Federal District’s most powerful rabbi, a man who rules over his sect -- known familiarly as “black hats” -- like a crime boss, dispensing influence and favors, while remaining as aloof and enigmatic as a Talmudic text. For Meyer, who is something of a loose cannon, a drinker who lives in the same hotel where Shpilman died, the case represents a last chance to redeem himself, both in his own eyes and those of his ex-wife Bina, who is his supervisor.
Redemption, however, creates its own complications, not just for Meyer but for Jewry at large. The deceased, after all, was once regarded as the “Tzaddik Ha-Dor,” a potential Messiah, and the question of his divinity reverberates throughout the book. “We are taught by the Baal Shem Tov, of blessed memory,” the rabbi explains, “that a man with the potential to be Messiah is born into every generation.” The catch is that the Jews as a people must reveal themselves as worthy, or the Messiah will remain hidden and the world will go on as it always has.
What Chabon is setting up is a classic genre construction, murder as the tip of the iceberg, as the catalyst for an extended investigation into a way of life. Such an arc was perfected by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Chabon can’t quite match their noirist chops, but he’s got something else in mind. Indeed, for him, the novel’s genre tropes -- the alternate history, the murder mystery -- are less narrative devices than expressions of his desire to mix fact and fantasy, literature and popular entertainment, until we don’t quite know where we stand anymore.
As we follow Meyer through his investigation, we get an education into an entire social structure in which policemen are called not cops but latkes, and “Big Macher” is the local outlet store. We see the latticework of underground tunnels, the “Untershtat,” that underlies the streets of Sitka, built by ex-partisans and survivors, "[t]he ones who had been in the ghetto in Warsaw. At Bialystok.... I guess some of them didn’t trust the Americans very much. So they dug tunnels. Just in case they had to fight again.”
At such moments, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is at its finest, connecting fantasy to history and, in so doing, commenting on our own elusive world. Some parallels are unmistakable -- the Jewish-Native American conflict standing in for that between Israelis and Arabs, the notion of the “disputed areas” as a kind of North Country version of the occupied territories, with all the internecine tensions and rivalries. Occasionally, Chabon draws these connections a bit too bluntly, as when a U.S. government functionary named Mr. Cashdollar tells Meyer, "[T]he end times are coming.... But for that to happen, Jerusalem and the Holy Land have to belong to the Jews again.” Yet these are minor quibbles in the face of the novel’s fundamental sense of possibility, in which history and reality come together in an elaborate collage.
Halfway through “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” the rabbi’s wife asks Meyer if he’s ever seen “that cartoon program, the wolf that chases the blue rooster” -- the old “Road Runner” show. When he says yes, she continues: “Then you know ... how that wolf can run in the middle of the air. He knows how to fly, but only so long as he still thinks he’s touching the ground. As soon as he looks down, and sees where he is, and understands what’s going on, then he falls and smashes into the ground.”
What Chabon is offering is a perfect metaphor for the creative process, for its willful suspension of disbelief. That’s a tough act to pull off, all the more so when you’re inventing not just the characters but the very landscape in which they move. Yet if “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” has anything to tell us, it’s that literature can encompass such inventions, and make of them the stuff of solid ground.