Okay, I'll admit it. I'm in love with Michael Chabon. How did I not see this before when I read The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and thought it was only 'pretty good'? Clearly I was in denial because after reading The Yiddish Policemen's Union for my book club and then quickly following it with Wonder Boys, I can't believe I wasn't raving about Chabon years ago.
The Yiddish Policemen's Union is Chabon's take on genre fiction, in this case the hard-boiled detective novel. All the usual factors are there: the troubled maverick detective, a body in the first chapter, crosses and double crosses and a plot that moves along at a cracking pace. Chabon works his magic to make something new out of this familiar terrain. The main way he does this is by setting his novel in a re-imagined world, one in which a homeland for Jews is established after World War II in Sitka, Alaska. Tension is created by the imminent 'reversion' in which the homeland will be returned to the US and the 'frozen chosen' of Sitka will be out on their ear.
The novel begins with the murder of a young, chess-playing heroin addict in a cheap dive of a hotel which also happens to be where detective Meyer Landsman is currently residing. Landsman becomes obsessed with solving the crime, despite the more pressing concerns of his own mess of a life, and it leads him into the dark and secretive world of the Verbover sect, a group of devout and corrupt Jews with their own plans for survival after they are kicked out of Sitka.
The plot is fast and clever but it is Chabon's use of language that really sucked me in. He channels Raymond Chandler and his ilk but then gives it a twist of his own. This is smart, funny writing that still has real emotional pull. Here's a taste from early in the book, introducing the main character:
According to doctors, therapists, and his ex-wife, Landsman drinks to medicate himself, tuning the tubes and crystals of his moods with a crude hammer of hundred-proof plum brandy. But the truth is that Meyer Landsman has only two moods: working and dead... He has the memory of convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker. When there is crime to fight, Landsman tears around Sitka like a man with his pant leg caught on a rocket. It's like there's a film score playing behind him, heavy on the castanets. The problem comes in the hours when he isn't working, when his thoughts start blowing out the open window of his brain like pages from a blotter. Sometimes it takes a heavy paperweight to pin them down.
Chabon also litters the text with his own brand of Yiddish slang that gives the alternative world that he has created a feeling of authenticity. It is this attention to detail that makes Sitka really come to life.
There is a certain strange freedom with writing within an established genre. Rather than it being formulaic, I think a good writer uses the shared understanding between reader and writer to leap-frog straight into more interesting territory. In genre fiction there is less time spent on establishing just what the book is and more time getting on with the really interesting stuff. Or that's what Chabon manages anyway. Sure, there are plenty of badly written crime novels, but there's lots of really turgid 'literary fiction' and the whole snobbishness around genre fiction is really undeserved, especially when you read a crime novel as good as this.
In my next post: why Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys is my new favourite book. Yes, folks, it's definitely love...