Hard-Boiled, Yiddish Style

will eisnerWhat do you get when you throw three million Jews into an Israel-size fingernail clipping of property on the coast of Alaska? Well, for starters, you get a war between Jews and Tlingit, the native Alaskaners. Then you get four hundred pages of snappy dialogue, noodle kugel, and Jewish detectives hungover on Slivovitz panning the streets for a murdered messiah.

Welcome to the world of Michael Chabon. His latest book is enititled “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”, and it’s the long longed-for follow up piece to the Pulitzer-winning Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay“. Chabon is as hilarious as Philip Roth, as breakneck-witted as Saul Bellow and his faux tough-guy shtick is as patent leather as my living room sofa. Which all makes for a fine cop novel where the characters chatter in Yiddish proverbs and flip each other off in American.

Essentially the plot is the plot of every crime novel: a corpse is found in a flophouse in a bad part of town–in this case on Max Nordau Street. Landsman is a divorced, hard-drinking detective who has seen better days. The region of Sitka is about to be forked over to the Alaskans after sixty years of Jewish autonomy. But why are the Jews in Sitka in the first place? And what will happen when the Alaskans return? For this, dear reader, you must obtain a copy of the book.

It has been said that Chabon cannot write a bad phrase. This is untrue, of course, but he has written many excellent ones. Speaking of a particular Sitka-style donut–and what cop novel lacks a good donut description?–Chabon hones in like this: “Like the storm god Yahweh of Sumeria, the shtekeleh (donut) was not invented by the Jews, but the world would sport neither God nor the shtekeleh without Jews and their desires.” Who else could get the history of God into rave-up for greasy pastry?

Marc Alan Coen, also in the NEWYORKERS section of this blog.


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