Whenever an author known for literary fiction decides to write science fiction, there’s always some trepidation on the part of the genre audience. Will they treat us gently, we wonder, or will they just take what they want from us and cast us aside?
Michael Chabon, though, has already shown a certain savvy about genre conventions. His YA novel Summerland was fantasy; the protagonists of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay write and illustrate comic books; Wonder Boys begins with a tribute to a fictional pulp writer, August Van Zorn. In retrospect it seems obvious that Chabon was moving in the direction of science fiction all along.
With The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, he has arrived at alternate history. Here the state of Israel collapsed after World War II, and strict quotas were palced on Jewish immigration into the United States. With nowhere to go, the Eastern European refugees, many of them survivors of concentration camps, were given the “hard-bitten, half-decrepit town” of Sitka, Alaska.
These Alaskan Jews are nothing like the bright-eyed, optimistic immigrants who founded the state of Israel. They depend on American tolerance, and now, sixty years after the Sitka Settlement, they face deportation under the Reversion, a program that champions “Alaska for Alaskans.” Instead of mellifluous Hebrew they speak Yiddish, an earthy, ungainly language that manages to fit a thousand years of cynicism into a single sentence. They are tired and unhappy, and some of them are fanatically angry.
No one is more tired or unhappy than Detective Meyer Landsman, whose latest case involves the body of a heroin addict found in Landsman’s own apartment building. Landsman has other problems as well: his sister has died recently; he has just been through a bitter divorce; and as the novel opens he discovers that his ex-wife, Bina Gelbfish, is now his boss.
With Reversion coming, Bina does not want him to spend valuable time working on a case with little hope of solution. But the dead man turns out to be more important than anyone guessed, and Landsman and his partner, a half-Jewish half-Indian policeman named Berko Shemets, set off to find the killer.
In the course of their investigation they encounter obsessive chess players, American fundamentalists, native Alaskans, and, in one of my favorite parts, a sect of Orthodox Jewish gangsters, all of whom react in different ways to the impending Reversion. And here Chabon shows his mastery of yet another genre, the detective novel, as the two men are lied to, discouraged, threatened, and shot at, all the time asking questions and following clues.
But this bare-bones summary misses some of the best things about The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. For one thing, it’s a very funny book. Here is Landsman forced to share a bed with Berko’s two sons: “The Shemets boys set up a whistling and rumbling and a blatting of inner valves that would shame the grand pipe organ of Temple Emanu-el ... They chop at Landsman, stab him with their toes, grunt and mutter. They masticate the fiber of their dreams. Around dawn, something very bad happens in the baby’s diaper. It’s the worst night that Landsman has ever spent on a mattress, and that is saying a good deal” (p. 192). Then there are the wonderfully human characters, Landsman especially, hopeless and sarcastic, a man who has given up but still manages somehow to go on.
And there’s the world itself, an improbable collision of Eastern European shtetls and the twenty-first century. Sitka Settlement, with its mystics and realists, its customs and bureaucracy, its Jews and Native Alaskans and Americans and Filipinos, is a meticulously realized creation; even its slang sounds authentic. It is the familiar modern world, and at the same time it is a loving eulogy to a way of life that vanished over sixty years ago.
Which, I guess, brings us back to question posed above. Can Chabon write science fiction well enough to create a believable alternate world? The Yiddish Policemen’s Union might not be rigorous enough for purists; I’m not quite sure how Marilyn Monroe got to be a First Lady in this timeline, or why an atomic bomb was dropped on Berlin. For myself, though, Chabon is completely convincing. The style and setting and characters all work brilliantly to complement each other: Sitka Settlement becomes a character in its own right. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is one of the best books, in any genre, I’ve read in a while.
Lisa Goldstein‘s latest novel is The Divided Crown, written under the name Isabel Glass. Her novel The Red Magician won the American Book Award for Best Paperback. She has worked as a proofreader, library aide, bookseller, and reviewer, and she lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and their cute dog Spark.