With his combination of literary seriousness (long, heavily researched novels), fruitful relationship to ethnic identity (Jewish) and ability to mine pop genres (science fiction, comic books), Berkeley resident Michael Chabon may have the highest capital of any West Coast writer.
Today Harper Collins releases "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," a detective story, sort of, set in an alternate universe, kind of, where the Jews have been resettled to Alaska. It's also Chabon's first full-length novel for adults since "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
He may be the only novelist in history to write for both the New York Review of Books -- where he recently had a ravishing essay on Cormac McCarthy and apocalypse fiction -- and Details (where his latest contribution concerned "the man purse").
Throw in leonine good looks that he often finds embarrassing and he can seem like the Prom King of American letters.
So it's refreshing to see that Chabon, he of the sharp cheekbones and shimmering sentences, doesn't spend all his time walking on water.
After dinner on a cool, clear recent night at his brown shingle house, Chabon sat at the kitchen table talking about his novel's origins while his wife, Ayelet Waldman, also a writer and as playfully brassy as her husband is earnestly soft-spoken, was washing dishes.
Suddenly, screams from upstairs. One of his four kids has locked himself in the bathroom. "Put your iPod on!" Chabon yelled to his daughter, who seemed to be somehow involved. Loud crash. Chabon, who is built like a ballet dancer, with long limbs and a thick chest, took off upstairs.
"Welcome to my life!" Waldman yelled.
Chabon, 43, first made waves in 1998 with the sexually ambiguous coming-of-age story "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," written for his UC Irvine MFA. After the low-key novel "Wonder Boys" (written while he lived in L.A. and later made into a film) and then two story collections, Chabon exploded into the top ranks of contemporary authors with "Kavalier & Clay," the affectionate story of two New York cousins behind the "Golden Age" of comics. The book, with its electric prose, dovetailed with the push for artistic and literary respect for comics of past and present.
The novel that followed, "Summerland," a children's story that merged baseball with mythology, drew mixed reviews but became one of the bestselling kids books ever.
(He has also, over the last decade or so, worked on several scripts in a process he described as "lucrative but not fruitful." A film of "Pittsburgh" is in post-production, but the "Kavalier & Clay" movie has fallen through.)
"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" begins with a down-on-his-luck cop who discovers that a resident of his fleabag hotel -- a mysterious, perhaps saintly loner dedicated to both heroin and chess -- has been murdered. Landsman, the cop, pursues his killer through a world of chess savants, Alaskan tundra and "black hats" -- ultra-orthodox thugs -- while answering to a boss who happens to be his ex-wife. Oh yeah, it all takes place in an alternate universe, in which the Jewish settlement of Alaska is, after a 60-year lease, set to lapse.
The novel was sparked by Chabon finding a 1958 travel guidebook called "Say It in Yiddish."
"I was just puzzled," he said after returning, the screams from upstairs having subsided. "And sort of haunted and mystified, too, by the idea of this Yiddish phrasebook for travelers."
While Chabon was pondering the matter -- and lamenting that had it not been for the Holocaust, Eastern Europe would likely be filled with millions of Yiddish-speaking Jews -- he recalled something he'd once read about FDR's Interior secretary suggesting Alaska as the new Jewish homeland.
So he started to imagine "a counter-Israel, in a sense -- cold, northern, Yiddish-speaking instead of Hebrew speaking."
Part of the excitement for Chabon was diving into the world of Yiddish, the German dialect that gradually incorporated words from Slavic languages and Hebrew. Yiddish produced what he considers an overlooked modernist literature, but never quite shook its oppressed-masses associations, especially among Jews. ("When it came time to found Israel, to speak Hebrew was a political statement: 'This is a new country, a new people, we're leaving the ghetto behind.' ")
His bits of the language -- best known to most Gentile readers for its rich well of insults and curse words -- give the book's prose a distinctive tang.
Chabon knew that a detailed alternate world would make storytelling even harder. "One way to solve that problem," he said, "was to have a protagonist who has access to all levels of that society. And I wanted a sense of movement, so it felt natural to conceive it as a detective story."
Chabon was glad to dive into the hard-boiled detective tradition he'd never engaged despite a love of Raymond Chandler. And he knew from his wife's work -- Waldman writes the "Mommy Track" mysteries, about a part-time private eye -- about the limits of freelance sleuths. "If someone's got a badge, more doors are open to him."
These and other literary problems solved, and the book finally written, Chabon is finding himself a bit frustrated that even the positive reviews are "tangled up" in its being a detective novel.
Genre fiction's struggle for respect is one of Chabon's fiercest causes. "There's something so tired about it," he said, his body collapsing in mock exasperation. "I thought we figured that out already."
He blames critics who don't know much popular writing, bookstore shelving, and general expectations, but sees younger readers emerging who are more at home with pop culture
"I think it's all coming from the same place," he said of the literary impulse. "When you look at a writer like Cornell Woolrich, cranking 'em out, there was a serious artistic soul you can see almost in spite of the ham-fisted writing and the clumsy plotting." And he calls Philip K. Dick -- whose '60s novels are being reissued this month by the Library of America -- "conceptually stunning" despite "formulaic language."
Like "Kavalier & Clay," which included many historical asides, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" is drenched in research.
Chabon loves spending hours in the library "getting lost in the spell" of knowledge, or stumbling on "the amazing chance discoveries" the Internet makes possible. "On the other hand," he said, "it can also be a real tar pit. It can be a very, very appealing way of not writing. I have a serious problem: I should go to Internet Anonymous."
Much of the book was written in places where he couldn't get an Internet connection.
"There's always the key moment," he said, "where it's time to stop researching and start making [stuff] up."
There's only one -- or rather, four -- problems on that one. When asked how having kids has changed his work, he responded with: "You get a lot less done."
"Children force you to live on this very superficial, widespread, very all-encompassing but not very deep level where you're always keeping track of stuff and making sure things happen on time," he said. "And if you're doing that you can't get down to that deeper place where everything is feeding into your work."
But besides the other intangibles -- a deeper sense of mortality and loss, a sense of what he calls "the irreversible arrow of time" -- kids have also given Chabon a fruitful subject. Between his parents' tales -- stories and ancestors are central to his sense of his Jewishness, which is not at all religious -- and his kids' adventures, he feels like he has almost seven decades of perspective.
"I think the one great constant is the utter mysteriousness of the world of adults," he said. "The ways you get reminded constantly that your kids have absolutely no idea what's going on, and the way they invent explanations for things that don't make sense to them -- what you're doing, what mommy and daddy are arguing about, what happened to grandma. The kids will be in the car for an hour and a half before it will occur to them to wonder where we're going."
Daniel Handler, a friend who writes as Lemony Snicket, said that patience, and the high standards that come with it, are among Chabon's greatest gifts. "He absolutely works at his own pace," Handler said. "So many writers don't really finish a novel, they just abandon it."
Chabon, similarly, is not a novelist in a rush to "get with" the culture. "I am a very slow, deliberative person," he said. "I'm not very good at temperature taking, or assessing what's happening around me.
"I think fiction writers tend to be mullers and grudge-holders and slow-burners, and people who go over the same incident over and over again wondering what went wrong. So I don't have that ability, or the desire, to look around me and say, 'Here's the way we live now.' I don't know how we live now -- and I won't know until we don't live that way anymore."