By Michael Chabon. Published in 2007.
The noirish style has an unfortunate reputation for being stylish yet shallow, just a lot of easily parodied purple prose and bleak underworld melodrama. But at its best, noir has a genuinely tortured soul that elevates it above those trappings. The genre came to prominence during the grim 1930s and experienced a film revival during the tumultuous 1970s because, at heart, it’s not so much about the gumshoe and the femme fatale as it is about disillusionment in the face of a world that seems all but irredeemable. Noir is about legitimate paranoia and the rot of corruption and brittle cynicism masking the last shreds of idealism. It’s about flawed people feebly trying to do something good under impossible circumstances. Noir is a genre that speaks to troubled times.
So given the many troubles and traumas of today’s world, it makes sense that writer Michael Chabon decided to play with noir in his latest novel. He is, of course, famously interested in muddying the boundary between so-called “literary” novels and genre fiction, but The Yiddish Policemen’s Union isn’t just an exercise, and though it dances lightly, even teasingly, around many hard-boiled detective tropes, it’s not a parody. Set in a fully realized counterhistorical world with dark parallels to our own, Chabon’s noir fantasia demonstrates just how resonant the genre can be.
The requisite world-weary, alcoholic detective of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is police officer Meyer Landsman, who lives in an extremely sketchy motel populated by addicts, criminals, and the detritus of society. When one of the addicts turns up dead, shot in the back of the head, Landsman takes it personally—the extremely sketchy motel is the only home he has left—and he plunges into investigating the young man’s murder.
Landsman doesn’t have much time to solve the case because Sitka, the district where he lives and works, is in a state of upheaval. In Chabon’s imagined world, Jews displaced by the horrors of the Holocaust and the destruction of Israel in 1948 have lived in this enclave in Alaska, created during the Franklin Roosevelt administration, for sixty years. (The author spins his alternate universe out of the forgotten fact that Roosevelt did, apparently, suggest creating such a place.) But now Sitka is reverting to American authority in a matter of months, and the people who live there are preparing for exile. “These are strange times to be a Jew,” more than one character laments.
Chabon doesn’t bog his novel down in exposition (we learn Sitka’s history through asides and incidental details, not in a single block of explanation); instead he immerses us immediately in the richly detailed world he has created. No doubt other Jews grasp more of the references—much of the language, for example, is derived from Yiddish, though context clues make it relatively easy for lapsed Methodists like myself to follow—but you don’t have to be Jewish to relate to the novel’s fears about political corruption and religious fanaticism.
And those are real fears. Chabon has a great deal of fun with the rococo details of his counterhistory, and he clearly enjoys playing with the familiar traits of noir, but though The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a wonderful read, it’s not a carefree romp. Chabon takes the plight of his characters seriously and delicately plays with details that, on reflection, don’t feel counterhistorical after all. A tender melancholy pervades the story, and much of the humor is jet-black and cutting.
Meanwhile Landsman; his ex-wife, Bina; his half-cousin, Berko; and many other characters are beautifully realized, easily escaping the cookie cutters of genre to become people about whom I cared a great deal. Noir often inspires great male characters, but Chabon is to be commended for creating complicated female counterparts to those men. The clichéd siren is nowhere to be seen, and in her place are a variety of women: strong, complex, and engagingly human.
But what really makes this audacious mystery/alternate history/identity drama/thriller shine is the writing. Chabon is a brilliant prose stylist, able to achieve real poetry—evocative and perceptive—without becoming stilted or unnatural. The dialogue here is particularly strong, crackling with noirish wit and writerly grace but not at the expense of the characters’ distinctive voices, which I could hear in my head without even closing my eyes. It’s that kind of artistry that allows Chabon to take the trappings and mood of noir and create a novel that’s not only redolent with meaning but, at times, truly profound—as compelling an exploration of identity and exile and loss and redemption as I expect to read all year.