Words in Boxes

Nouns, verbs, and occasionally adjectives.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Thoughts on The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Monday night Jenny and I saw Michael Chabon read from his book, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, for a good three-quarters of an hour. He's a great writer, an interesting guy, and a entertaining reader, but unfortunately, I don't have any complimentary adjectives for his interviewer.

Now, I don't want to be overly critical. But really. She (I wish I could find her name) committed all of the classic writer-interviewer sins. She was overly fawning. Her mannerisms were forced. She asked the obligatory I-have-to-prove-I'm-smart-by-offering-my-interpretation-of-the-author's-work-that-even-he-hasn't-thought of question that was as ill-conceived and ill-constructed as this sentence's hyphenated monstrosity. Chabon, for his part, did his best to cover for her by talking so much that she didn't have time to ask too many questions.

I hadn't heard of Chabon until recently, but this summer I kept seeing his name in blogs and started to wonder about the guy. I was finally convinced by Chad Orzel's review at Uncertain Principles not only to read the book, but to buy it before I could reach the end of the public library's massive hold queue.

Not being one to duplicate work already well-done, here's Orzel's summary of the book's setup:

In case you've been hiding out in a cave that no book reviews can penetrate, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is Michael Chabon's new novel about a Jewish homeland in Alaska. In this alternate history, the founding of Israel went catastrophically wrong, and the Zionists were driven into the sea by Arab armies. Lacking a home in the Holy Land, a temporary Jewish homeland was created in Sitka, Alaska, with a sixty-year lease. As the book opens, the end of that lease is rapidly approaching, and the fate of the citizens of Sitka after Reversion is very much up in the air. As a common refrain through the book goes, these are strange times to be a Jew.

The book follows Meyer Landsman, a homicide detective with a drinking problem, as he gets involved in investigating the murder of another occupant of the fleabag hotel where he's been bedding down since his divorce. Landsman is personally offended at having a murder committed under his nose, and so he defies direct orders from his superiors (including his ex-wife, now his boss) and continues investigating, even as the case leads him into a mess of corruption and some supernatural weirdness that may herald the arrival of the Messiah.

Chabon's biggest talent is how he throws together so many disparate elements - historical, weird, and inane - into completely improbable constructions and then sells it with his spot-on energetic and creative language. Although the language threatens to slip into mannered look-at-me quirkiness, it never quite does, because it's just so spot-on:

The Filipino-style Chinese donut, or shtekeleh, is the great contribution of the District of Sitka to the food lovers of the world. In its present form, it cannot be found in the Philippines. No Chinese trencherman would recognize it as the fruit of his native fry kettles. Like the storm god Yahweh of Sumeria, the shtekeleh was not invented by the Jews, but the world would sport neither God nor the shtekeleh without Jews and their desires. A panatela of fried dough not quite sweet, not quite salty, rolled in sugar, crisp-skinned, tender inside, and honeycombed with air pockets. You sink it in your paper cup of milky tea and close your eyes, and for ten fat seconds, you seem to glimpse the possibility of finer things.

Anyway, read the book.

I'm James Sulak, a software developer in Houston, Texas.

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