My first Chabon! OOOOOOF. WOW. Holy crap, you guys, did you know that his prose is exceptional and that there’s no exposition, and that he creates an utterly believable alternate timeline and a narrative that ramps up until you’re flying down the other side of the rollercoaster with no brakes?
Are they all like this? Is my brain going to melt? How have I missed out this my entire adult life?
Full disclosure: it took me a really long time to gather momentum with “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.” It’s my fault. No, really. I had confused Chabon with Carré, and wasn’t expecting the outlandishness of language, and absurdity of the characters, and the alternate reality. I couldn’t wrap my brain around it for a while, and also: it’s really dense, and I wasn’t prepared. And then suddenly the action picked up, and I had focused so intently on making sure I understood the foundation that the pay off was like FIREWORKS.
What is this novel? It’s a hard-boiled detective story told in a version of history in which instead of carving out Israel for Jewish settlement in 1948, the USA carved out a bunch of Native American land in Alaska for Jewish settlement, and there’s a huge Yiddish-speaking community in this frozen wasteland, with a huge history of conflict with the Native Americans who (of course) weren’t asked before their land was stolen (again). And to add insult to injury, in two months, the USA is taking back the land, and the Yids are on their own. And then there’s a murder, and it involves the police, the FBI, the mob, the Native Americans, and it has politically global implications. Also: everyone is obsessed with chess.
Linguistically, it’s incredible. Narratively, exceptional. I wanted to bathe in this book by the time I was halfway through. Once Chabon describes something, whether it be a physical setting or someone’s feelings, there is no topping that description. He has The Words. I mean:
Landsman considers the things that remain his to lose: a porkpie hat. A travel chess set and a Polaroid picture of a dead messiah. A boundary map of Sitka, profane, ad hoc, encyclopedic, crime scenes and low dives and chokeberry brambles, printed on the tangles of his brain. Winter fog that blankets the heart, summer afternoons that stretch endless as arguments among Jews. Ghosts of Imperial Russia traced in the onion dome of St. Michael’s Cathedral, and of Warsaw in the rocking and sawing of a café violinist. Canals, fishing boats, islands, stray dogs, canneries, dairy restaurants. The neon marquee of the Baranof Theatre reflected on wet asphalt, colors running like watercolor as you come out of a showing of Welles’s Heart of Darkness, which you have just seen for the third time, with the girl of your dreams on your arm.
Get ready for a whole bunch more Chabon reviews in CBR9. I want it all.