Alternative history is usually a simple, if tantalizing affair. What if the South had won the Civil War? What if the Nazis had prevailed in World War II? What if America and its allies won WWII, but the fledgling Israeli nation was crushed in the Middle East and relocated to the hinterlands of Alaska?What was that last idea, you ask? It's the premise of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon's new novel, with the delightfully ludicrous title of The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Sprinkled with Yiddishims, the novel is replete with gangsters, grifters, cops and gamblers, who all agree on one thing: These are strange times to be a Jew. Detective Meyer Landsman is the Yiddish policeman in question. Landsman (a word Jews use to refer to fellow Jews from their old country) has an exasperatingly unerring moral compass. Like most cops of literature and film, he is a man on the edge. Divorced, devastated by the untimely death of his bush-pilot sister and living in a flophouse hotel, he is quickly retreating into alcoholism.
About the only thing Landsman does have is his job, and like the dream of Eretz Israel, it will soon be gone. In scant months the territory annexed for European Jewry returns to the state. Landsman, and his fellow Sitka Jews, will be landless. But before he can drink himself to death, Landsman has a job to do. A heroin-addicted chess master is murdered in Landsman's seedy hotel. With the grudging help of Berko, his half-Jewish, half-Tlingit partner, and in direct defiance of his ex-wife's boss, Landsman pursues justice with surprising vigor. He discovers that the victim is a former Black Hat, one of the clam-tight society of Sitka's ultra-orthodox Jews, which has a lock on organized crime that John Gotti would have envied. Landsman digs up another interesting bit of information the dead needle popper just may have been the Messiah. Strange times indeed.
Chabon got the impetus for the novel from an obscure 1940 proposal to resettle European Jews in Alaska. He is not the first macher to delve into alternative history recently the venerable Philip Roth published The Plot Against America in 2005. Chabon, among the most acclaimed American authors of his generation, has by coincidence or design penned what could be considered a companion to Roth's book. But instead of following Roth into social commentary, Chabon has created an original, topnotch murder mystery. That's not to say there aren't moments of great revelation in Chabon's writing. Late in the novel, Landsman falls into a discussion of the Bible with a man who owns the bottom-line moniker of Cashdollar. Jesus, Landsman concludes in a profane revelation for the ages, was a Sorry, this is a family publication. You'll have to pick up the book to read the rest.
Ian Schwartz writes from San Diego.