Monday, December 22, 2008

Books Without Pictures: The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Inside the Flap: For Sixty years Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered in the Federal District of Sitka, a "temporary" safe haven created in the wake of the Holocaust and the shocking 1948 collapse of the fledgling state of Israel. The Jews of the Sitka District have created their own little world in the Alaskan panhandle, a vibrant and complex frontier city that moves to the music of Yiddish. But now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control, and their is coming to an end.
Homicide detective Meyer Landsman of the District Police has enough problems without worrying about the upcoming Reversion. His life is a shambles, his marriage a wreck, his career a disaster. And in the cheap hotel where Landsman has washed up, someone has just committed a murder--right under his nose. When he begins to investigate the killing of his neighbor, a former chess prodigy, word comes down from on high that is the case to be dropped immediately, and Landsman finds himself contending with all the powerful forces of faith, obsession, evil, and salvation that are his heritage.

I found this to be a somewhat disappointing offering from a fella I consider one of my favorite contemporary fiction writers, Michael Chabon (and no, not just because it lacked the comic book connection of "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay").

The premise and the set-up are solid bits of business. Chabon does a nice job utilizing the tool of an alternate history without making it so overwhelming you feel like you're reading forced science fiction. The twist is nothing so drastic as Hitler conquering America or anything like that, simply that Jews were forced to relocate to North America en masse and placed in a sort of polite ghetto to make their way. The sense that the residents of Sitka are on borrowed time place a ticking clock over their collective head that heightens the sense of urgency, always a good thing in a mystery, and only intensifies as the novel goes on.

Chabon also gets to do some decent world-building in creating that "vibrant and complex frontier city" described up top, something he's very good at. He makes sure we get a full tour of Sitka, from the shambling area Landsman calls home to the kingdom built on crime where the Verbovers dwell and all places in between. The different sub-locales each feel distinct, but with a unifying tone of people sleepwalking through a temporary existence. It certainly seems like the skies are always grey in Sitka, and you can visualize it through Chabon's description, another area in which he has traditionally excelled from a writing standpoint.

And yet Chabon's greatest strengths also seem to be his most glaring weaknesses in this book.

Chabon abuses his tremendous gift for description. Each new character, setting or even item of clothing gets at least a full paragraph devoted to its unpacking. Chabon certainly creates a vivid picture of what you're "seeing," but it's distracting. Advances of the plot or exchanges of dialogue are often broken up by huge blocks of text just describing the room or a way a characters carries himself. At first, it's a pleasure and adds to what Chabon is trying to achieve, but gradually the overabundance of description causes a reader such as myself not possessed of infinite patience to begin glazing over passages. Chabon fails to adhere to that old "show don't tell" chestnut in a way I feel he didn't have a problem with in "Kavalier & Clay."

Also, while I stand by my earlier praise of Chabon's fully-realized Sitka, I do think, particularly in the later chapters, he goes a bit overboard shuttling characters from place to place with little in the way of explanation aside from the literary equivalent of jump cuts. Trying to figure how Landsman got from point A to point D and then how the other characters followed him is another distraction from the good stuff. It screws with the solid pacing that Chabon sets up early on and makes time seem too fluid.

The strongest aspect of this novel, in my opinion, is definitely the mystery that Landsman is attempting to solve. It is engaging, complex and tough to figure out; that last part can make it hard to follow at times, but the first two parts are strong enough that you don't mind. Chabon skillfully hitches on issues of faith and destiny to what could be a simple street level homicide puzzle and does so in a manner that keeps their importance ambiguous. Are they actual clues or are they distractions? You'll be guessing to the end.

Because the central mystery is so good, it's a bit frustrating when Chabon veers off in many different directions along the way. I understand the need to pepper a romantic subplot and other running B-stores throughout a plot like this, but I'm convinced they could have been worked in less clumsily in this case. Landsman's relationship with his ex-wife is definitely a compelling thread I want to see given service, but it gets dropped in at the most awkward times, then forgotten about for too long, and then brought back in with changes seemingly having taken place "off stage." Landsman's thorny family tree is also intriguing, but similarly ping ponged in and out of the story at inopportune times. The death of Landsman's sister before the start of the novel is a perfect example of a plot point brought up at the beginning of the book and then forgotten for nearly 300 pages before it comes roaring back with a vengeance.

As far as the characters go, I liked them, but I didn't fall in love with them. Landsman is the classic "damaged goods" cop that usually stars in a story like this; Chabon's writing puts him a slight notch above the norm, but he's not so much anything special. Berko and Bina, Landsman's cousin/partner and ex-wife/boss respectively, are far more interesting, one a semi-gentle giant struggling with identity issues derived from a mixed Jewish/Indian heritage plus major daddy issues, the other a strong-willed female cop who outshines her former spouse in just about every way and displays an endearing willfulness. The rest of the assorted rogues and heavies, with a sympathetic face sprinkled in every now and again for good measure, are interesting enough, though tough to keep track of without a scorecard. Perhaps the most interesting character of all proves to be the murdered party, who, via flashback, we see to be a unique mix of eccentric and would-be messiah.

However, it's the collective "voice" of this book's characters that proved one of the biggest stumbling blocks for me. Chabon takes the tried and true gritty sarcasm of classic crime noir and overdoses to the point where it becomes overconfidence and a general dismissive tone. A pet peeve of mine when reading comic books is when characters are so quippy or alternately world weary that they project a sense of general apathy towards every threat they face. In most cases, this the writer trying to make their character seem cool and charismatic, but the end result for me is a reduction of stakes and my interest in said characters. I'd say Chabon is definitely guilty of this here, as Landsman brushes aside every challenge, injury or intimidating presence with a smarmy remark. It's one thing for his life to be so shitty he feels he has nothing to lose, but another for me as a reader to feel that way about him; if he's already at rock bottom and afraid of nothing, why should I care if he's put in harm's way? I should care about his ostensible quest for redemption, but if he's on one (which is questionable), I don't. Some of the other characters show flashes of emotion, but it's Landsman's eyes through which we view the world, and ultimately it makes for a ride that's bland in many places.

I guess my final quibble would be with the way Chabon employs Jewish and Yiddish linguistics, but that's not really a fair bone to pick; if I pick up a book called "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" with the foreknowledge that I don't know Yiddish or get most Jewish slang, I've only myself to blame when this lack of familiarity becomes annoying.

In final analysis, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" is a novel I find many flaws with, but one I concede I found for the most part engaging in spite of them. I kept coming back for more, so obviously something was being done right. If anything, I'd say the book is entertaining if not well-crafted, which is disappointing because it's Michael Chabon and he's capable of delivering both. Am I being harsher on the book because it's Chabon? Probably, but that's the price ou pay for winning a Pulitzer, I suppose.

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